Author Archives: johnscheffler

“It is bad luck to stop for any reason on the way to or from a fishing trip”

My informant first heard this superstition as a young boy when he would go on fishing trips with his grandfather.  Together, they would make sure to prepare the night before and eat a full breakfast so there would be no reason to stop in the morning.  He had just assumed that his grandfather was impatient and didn’t want to miss out on fishing because of a break or a snack.  One day, as they were fishing, my informant asked why his grandfather wouldn’t allow any stops.  His grandfather replied that he and the rest of his family believed that stopping for any reason on the way to or from fishing was bad luck. If one were to stop on the way to the boat, they’d be in danger of not catching many fish.  Also, if they stopped on the way home, they would risk quality of their catch and that the fish would not taste good when cooked later.

His grandfather continued to explain that this superstition has existed within his family and other families for many generations, and that it can be traced back to the story of the anea-holo of Hawaiian folktale.  The anea-holo is a type of mullet and is mostly native to the island of Oahu.  As the story goes, when the family of Ihuopalaai’s sister ran out of fish to eat, she sent her husband to talk to him and ask for fish.  It was also requested that her husband not bring back dried fish, because it would go bad before his return.  After her husband declined bundles of dried fish, Ihuopalaai told him to return home on the Kona side of the island and not to sit, stay, nor sleep on the way until he reached home. The husband started home as requested, and Ihuopalaai asked the fish god, Ku-ula, to send anea-holo for his sister.  While the husband was returning home, he noticed a large school of fish in the sea.  He grew tired and disobeyed Ihuopalaai, and as he rested, the fish rested, too.  As the fish rested, other people noticed the school and began catching them.  The husband had not realized this was the supply sent for his family.  Finally, the husband reached home again and told his wife of the fish.  They fished together and were able to catch more than enough to feed their family, but they could have caught more had the husband had done exactly as Ihuopalaai requested.

This story is the basis for this superstition.  While the family was able to catch the amount of fish they desired, they could have caught more had it not been for the husband’s rests on the way home.  So for this reason, it is considered bad luck to stop on the way too or from a fishing trip, because you risk losing some of your catch or worse.

According to my informant, he has never asked anyone outside his family about the superstition, but he expects that many other families have similar superstitions, because of the story.  He also believes that it’s still used because it’s logical to be rested, full, and prepared before you leave to go fishing, so you can get started as soon as possible, and get home in time to cook what was caught.

“A woman is a cob of maize for any mouth that has its teeth”

The first time my informant head this metaphor was in the first few months of his residency in Congo.  He had just started his missionary work, his reason for moving from the United States, and when he’d be walking from place to place, he would hear groups of men laughing together and they would often recite this folk metaphor.

My informant explained that the women in Congo were not respected, and this metaphor speaks to that sentiment.  He said the proverb means that a woman has no rights, and that any man can claim a woman, for marriage or sex (mostly), as long as they desire to do so.

In areas of Congo, maize is grown by farmers and is common in their diets.  To eat maize, one must simply make use of their teeth.  As accessible maize is to one’s diet, a woman is just as available to satisfy a male’s desires.  It is upon this comparison that the metaphor is established.

As my informant continued his work in Africa, he tried to quell this popular opinion towards women.  However, while he was able to share the benefits of valuing women and giving them rights, only a few actually put these ideas into practice.  Other than these individuals, this folk metaphor remains popular to the majority of males in the country and women continue to be shown little to no esteem.

Annotation: The African proverb can also be found in Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Heinemann; Reissue edition, 1991

Dead Baby Joke

Q: What do you get when you stab a baby?

A: An Erection.


While this joke is gruesome and terrible in every conceivable way, it is my informant’s absolute favorite joke.  He first heard it from one of his friends in high school.  My informant had just told a sexist joke about Helen Keller not being able to drive well because she was a woman. His friend sneered and replied, “You think that joke is bad?”  Then, he continued to tell my informant this joke.

My informant explained that when the question was asked, all he could think of was how terrible it sounded to stab an infant.  Before he could even begin to construct a reasonable response, his friend delivered the punch line.  Of course, such an awful and perverse response is completely unexpected.  My informant “nearly died” from laughter and claims to have never laughed as hard since.

Of course, no one in their right mind would stab a baby.  Also, only the most indecent of all people could receive enough satisfaction from such an act to sexually arouse themselves.  However, in the context of the joke, it makes sense and is humorous (to some) to think that someone would suggest that anyone would feel that way.

The joke works like many others because it delivers an appropriate incongruity. It’s an incongruity because no one expects the answer they receive, and appropriate because it’s funny to think the joke-teller could be that disturbed.  But they’re not, so it’s humorous.  So, in this case, we’re presented with an inappropriate appropriate incongruity.  This joke belongs to a series of similar, equally gruesome ‘dead baby jokes’ that are shared between my informant and his close friends from high school.

“The Thunderstorm”

While the victim is unsuspecting or away, perpetrators will fill an empty, large trash bin full of water.  Then, when the victim leaves to use a public restroom and selects a stall, the perpetrators will dump the huge amount of water over the door of the stall, flicker the lights, and bang on the sides of the stall, simulating a thunderstorm.  Of course, the idea is to completely drench the victim while they are absolutely defenseless, with their pants down. This will put the victim in a completely uncomfortable position, at least until they can change their clothes. 


My source first learned of this practical joke when he found himself victimized.  Last year he lived in an on-campus dormitory, where between 20 and 30 male students live on a floor together and share a large, public-style bathroom.  Another student had heard of this prank and had been dying all semester to pull it off.

At the time, my source had changed into some comfortable clothes and was about to settle down and type out a report for one of his classes.  As time passed, he had to use the restroom.  Of course, the other student had filled a trash can with water earlier in the day and was waiting for this exact moment.  With the help of two other students, the perpetrator was able to dump the bin full of water onto my source.

“I was tired from writing the paper, and a bucket-full of water was what I least expected.  So, yes, I was completely shocked,” reported my source.  His first reaction was to cover up and get out of there as soon as he could.  Then he changed his clothes and set out to find the perpetrators. My source was not angry and realized that in the long run, this would be a funny story to tell, and this is why he decided to share this practical joke with me.

Many instances of practical jokes can be attributed to rites of passage.  The student who first had the idea had waited all year to feel comfortable enough around someone to make them the victim of this practical joke without them having hard feelings.  In this sense, my source had gone from friend to trusted-friend in the eyes of the perpetrator, and this prank was his rite of passage.

When a dog eats grass, it’s going to rain

My source grew up on a farm in northeast Nebraska and recalls learning this indicator when he was 7 or 8 years old.  His grandmother owned three dogs during his childhood, and one day he saw them all eating grass at the same time.  He found this odd, so he asked his grandmother if she forgot to feed the dogs.  She hadn’t, and explained to him that when dogs eat grass, it’s an indication that it will rain soon.  Sure enough, it rained later that day. Afterwards, most of the time he saw the dogs eating grass, rain quickly followed.

It is not out of the ordinary for a dog to eat grass, and it is actually typical if a dog has an upset stomach.  But then again, a coming rain is not likely to make a dog sick.  My informant suggested that there might be an atmospheric change that occurs before a rainstorm that might make dogs believe they have a symptom of an upset stomach, so then they would decide to eat grass.  There is no proof to support this explanation, but it makes sense to my informant considering the likelihood of rain after he saw his dogs eating grass.

However, there were several times that he would see the dogs eating grass and it wouldn’t rain.  In these cases, either the dogs were sick or it was a dry season.  This supports another folk superstition that his grandmother once told my informant.  She would say, “In a dry spell, all signs fail.” My informant’s grandmother knew many folk superstitions, and she would tell them to the family when appropriate.  No one else in the family desired to memorize them all as she had done, but they would remember the ones that she had told them over and over, and they shared those between each other.  These superstitions were likely shared in the same way by many other families.  This particular superstition is likely to be shared mostly by farmers because their occupation and livelihood is dependent on weather patterns, so if there is any way farmers can make use of a weather indicator, they certainly will.


Annotation: This particular folk superstition can be found in John Frederick Doering’s article: “Some Western Ontario Folk Beliefs and Practices” in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 199 (Jan. – Mar., 1938), pp. 61

The Polack who shot his dog

Q: Did you hear about the Polack that shot his dog?

A: He found out his wife had had an affair with his best friend.

My informant first heard this joke in the 1970’s when spending time with friends he had made while working for a Southern Californian electric company.  They were sitting around and decided tell each other all of the Polack jokes they knew.  This joke, like every other Polack jokes, capitalizes on the historical American conception of the Polish as dim-witted and uneducated.  However, currently Polack jokes aren’t used as much anymore.  Today, the Polish are well-educated, democratic leaders in Eastern Europe, and an ally.

Polack jokes are a popular form of Blazon Populaire, a type of humor which is based on the insulting another race of group of people.  This joke is clearly an example of blazon populaire, as it is a typical Polack joke that capitalizes on the belief that all Polish are unintelligent.  The best friend of the Polish man is a dog, and while dogs are traditionally a ‘man’s best friend’, they’re not supposed to be.  This represents that a standard Polish man does not have the capacity to make friends with other people, and that his time is best spent with an animal with a smaller brain and incapacity to communicate.  Also, the Polack must also believe that his wife would choose to have an affair with his dog, which is also dumb on the Polack’s part.

This joke works like many other jokes on the establishment of an appropriate incongruity in the punch line.  The incongruity is that the wife is sleeping with a dog, but it’s appropriate because it’s the Polack’s best friend.


My informant was raised in Poland and has lived there most of her life.  In the late 1970’s, she first participated in this traditional festival as one of her Girl Scout activities.  She explained that this festival dates back to pagan times, and that everyone was allowed to participate.  They would build a doll of straw and tree branches and dress it in old clothes.  The clothes were supposed to look rather trashy and they would decorate the doll to look ugly.  Then everyone would gather around to throw the doll into a river.  Hence, the Americanized name for this festival is the Drowning of the Doll.

Traditionally, the doll symbolizes winter.  After months of freezing weather, the Polish wish to free themselves of the cold, so they personify the winter as a doll.  My informant explained that the doll “symbolizes winter, so it’s ugly.”  Then, when the doll is thrown into the river, it’s like they’re killing the winter that has passed and they can look forward to warmer months.

The festival is only celebrated by the Polish because it represents their unique pagan past, a time without the foreign influences of modern times.  This does not mean that this holiday is only celebrated in Poland.  My informant has not attended Marzanna since her youth, but she has heard of instances of people of Polish heritage having their own festivals in other countries to connect them with their homeland

Eve of St. John’s Fires

On the midsummer solstice, or the Eve of St. John, fires are lit and maidens wear wreaths in their hair to celebrate the longest day of the year.


My informant first attended this festival with her family as a little girl, and mostly remembered the beautiful wreaths all of the girls would wear in their hair.  She was also able to recall the many fires that were lit and that the men in attendance would jump across them.  Also, those in attendance would stay out all day without sleeping to celebrate the length of the day and to appreciate the sunshine.  At the end of the festival, all of the girls will throw their wreaths into the fires.

One of the most interesting aspects of this festival is that the different flowers worn in a girl’s wreath have different meanings.  My informant remembers wearing white roses, which she remembers symbolized simplicity and purity.  Perhaps the most significant flowers worn in the wreaths were lavender and myrtle, and they both represent love.  If a girl wears one of these flowers in her wreath, throws her wreath into the fire and the burning wreath is thrown into the river and recovered by a single man, the girl would be said to be engaged to that man, by tradition. Symbolically, this union represents the birth of a new relationship, and the longer days are conducive to this birth.

This festival is uniquely Polish and has been celebrated for more than a thousand years.  While mostly celebrative in the native Poland, my informant knows several Poles in other countries that also celebrate the Eve of St. John’s and she believes it’s, “because it’s romantic to look back on one’s culture.”

If a cow is bloated and sick, you have it chew on a rope

My informant was raised on a farm in northeast Nebraska and, in his youth, he was active in maintaining the farm with his parents.  One day, about 50 years ago, one of the family’s cows became sick.  The cow became bloated and my informant’s father had to explain that cows are too stupid to know when to stop eating.  This particular cow had eaten too much alfalfa.  This situation can be especially problematic if the alfalfa is really fresh because, according to other farmers, it expands as it is digested.  If nothing is done, there is a significant chance the cow will die.

It seemed likely to my informant that this remedy may have originated when someone gave their cow something to chew on to help it cope with the pain of the bloating, and the cow recovered.  My informant believes that chewing on the rope might ease the stomach and allow the cow to burp and let out some of the air that has it bloating.  Also, this method has proven effective, because if the cow is dumb enough to binge on alfalfa to a point where it endangers its own life, it can surely chew on a rope for hours on end.

At the time my informant first heard of this remedy, he did not know of a medicinal cure for the bloating.  Considering the cows had to be fed, housed, and cleaned, uncommon problems like bloating went without a definite cure and farmers had to ask each other what to do in these situations, and in this way, folk remedies spread from farm to farm.

A homemade cocklebur tea will cure a horse or cow of constipation

This informant spent his youth on a farm in Madison County, Nebraska.  His parents farmed many acres and they raised several kinds of livestock.  He first learned this folk remedy from one of his friends in high school.  He is not sure how it came up, but it’s never difficult for immature minds to reach constipation and other digestion problems as their source of conversation.  My informant has only heard of this remedy and doesn’t know anyone who has ever tried it.

The cocklebur is a plant with spines at its leaf bases.  As far as other properties, it is poisonous to livestock, and animals will avoid it while foraging.  Less picky animals, such as pigs, will commonly eat the plant, get sick, and die.

To make the tea, one just has to mash up cocklebur leaves, add water, and mix the combination.  The plant is sickening, so when it enters the animal’s system, the animal will do what it can to reject the poison. In the process of cleansing the animal’s body, all of the other stomach contents are emptied, curing the livestock’s constipation.  In fact, it gives the animal a case of diarrhea.

The consequences of using the tea may not seem beneficial at first, but without treatment, constipation could be fatal or cause serious health problems for the animals.  This folk remedy and others are commonly shared among farmers to prevent the death of livestock when a specific medicine cannot be procured.  Oftentimes, the wellbeing of a farmer is dependent on the health of his livestock, and this sort of information could really be helpful.