In the charity shop, I feared that the word ‘dicky-bow’ might be offensive

Michael Harding: My magical thinking about second-hand items bringing good fortune began in childhood

I was poking around in a vintage shop in Limerick recently, looking for a briefcase. I didn’t find one but I did find a huge clock the size of an industrial frying pan, which I bought for €4, though I wasn’t quite sure what I might do with it.

It lay on the back seat of the car for a few days until the beloved asked me what I was doing with an oversized clock.

“It tells me the time,” I explained.

The beloved knows not to rely on logic when we’re in conversation, so nothing more was said.


The clock is not the only useless object I ever dragged home from some car boot sale, where I trawl the stalls like a magpie looking for things that glitter.

I have an Italian leather travel case that cost me €10, a 19th-century box that opens into a portable writing bureau – a kind of Victorian laptop with tiny compartments for pens and paper, envelopes and stamps. I use it to store a wide variety of tablets I need to take on a daily basis.

And when I stuff a few shirts, underpants and socks into the fancy leather travel case I feel confident heading out on the road. The little case becomes a symbol of good fortune. The sight of it assures me that all will be well in the universe.

To meet an Englishman of such erudition in the field of etymology was a treat since I come from Cavan, a county that is proud of its English linguistic heritage

This is magical thinking, which doesn’t end with writing bureaus or Italian leather. I even gather suits from vintage racks. Recycling other people’s clothes, tailored from pure wool, ticks a lot of environmental boxes for me.

Sometimes I wonder about who might have owned the suit before me, and feel grateful for their generosity. Donating to charity shops is a noble gesture. And I consider everything I find in second-hand shops to be auspicious because of this. I live in hope that anything purchased in such outlets will also bring me good fortune.

My magical thinking began in childhood, when I concluded that discovered objects could transform my life; a gift or an unexpected treat was always a stepping stone on the pathway of becoming.

For example, I got a carpenter’s toolbox one Christmas, and was momentarily certain that I might become a carpenter. Fortunately, on another occasion I got an ornate diary of empty pages and concluded that becoming a writer was more likely. This magical view of reality became the foundation of my religious faith. And to this day I still revere icons and other holy objects; as if by keeping them close they could act as a compass, steering me through dark and choppy waters, towards some ultimate peace. A golden Buddha, or the face of a nun in religious ecstasy can draw me deep into an imaginal realm where all that is and is becoming pushes towards me with infinite love.

Last week, while scouring shops for a briefcase, I met a man foraging among the bric-a-brac as he examined a red velvet bow tie with tenderness. We spoke, but I was reluctant to call it a “dicky-bow” because I feared the word might be offensive.

“Ah no” he said, in a mellow English accent, “the dicky in this context is not what you are thinking of. In Cockney slang a dicky-dirt is a shirt, and a bow attached to the shirt is a dicky-bow.”

Off he went to the till and paid €3 for the bow tie, leaving me feeling almost naked without it

To meet an Englishman of such erudition in the field of etymology was a treat since I come from Cavan, a county that is proud of its English linguistic heritage and its abundance of archaic words that have peppered the conversation of rustics in south Ulster since the time of Shakespeare.

“So dicky has nothing to do with the penis,” I concluded.

“Not if you’re speaking of a dicky-bow,” he said. “The connection is to a dicky-dirt. A shirt. Although quite separately there is indeed a case for calling the male organ a dick.”

“Why so?” I wondered.

“Chaucer,” he declared. “He uses a variation of the word dick as a verb; to copulate.”

I hoped by now that he might discard the dicky-bow and leave, for I had an overwhelming urge to buy it.

“The thing is,” he said, “I was just rummaging for old books, but after our little chat I feel compelled to procure this.”

He meant the dicky-bow. And so off he went to the till and paid €3, leaving me feeling almost naked without it.

“May it bring you luck,” I called after him, as he vanished out the door.