Author Archive
Folk speech
Humor
Rituals, festivals, holidays

No Eye Deer

“What do you call a deer with no eyes?

No eye-deer [spoken like “idea” with a drawling a that ends in an r].”

 

The informant learned this and other jokes (most of them he claimed to be especially bad, and possibly prized for their cringe-worthiness), during band camp when he was an undergraduate, (he was introduced to many of them in his freshman year. The informant said that telling jokes is part of the ritual of band camp, partly to foster camaraderie and boost morale, and partially to evade boredom on buss trips. He said you had to tell jokes because “you can only drink so much on a bus trip.”

This particular joke holds no specific significance for the informant, but is representative of the types of jokes he remembers.

This joke, and the group of jokes of a similar type that it comes from, seems to have a universal hold on different age groups. It’s extremely similar to the types of jokes that might be told at a camp for youths. Word play is as understandable to adults as it is to children, and the frequency of the retelling of these kinds of jokes suggests that English speakers (and perhaps speakers of other languages as well) find humor in the manipulation of speech, which is such an ordinary part of life. This works with surprise to create humor.

Folk Beliefs
Humor
Initiations

Ice Cream and Hairdryer

“Basically, it’s not really a joke… but in high school, I remember people kept saying how, it was like a legend how, if you put ice cream on your balls and then you put, you bring a hairdryer to them, somehow that’s supposed to feel, like, great. I don’t know… that sounds horrible to me. That’s, like supposed to be like a great feeling, like first you put ice cream on your balls, and then you warm them up with a hairdryer. It’s one and then the other. “

 

The informant said he’d learned it from friends in high school, and added that he’d never tried it personally, and had no way of knowing if others had tried it (besides their testimonies). He said, “I just have never had ice cream and a hairdryer in the same place. And balls.”

My suspicion is that this was a sort of initiation ploy for high school boys, the goal may have been to shame those who tried it (because it doesn’t seem like it could possibly be pleasant) and cause them pain. It creates distance between the genders because this is folklore that doesn’t work across all sides, so it may also be a means of fostering identity and tightening groups.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Macbeth Bad Luck

“Everyone that comes to my house who’s at all superstitious claims our house is haunted. Now, I have noticed all kinds of weird stuff in this house over the years. Believe me… I could not disprove it. I could not prove it, but nor could I disprove it., so there’s a feeling that there’s something going on in the house. Now I always maintain that they’re good ghosts, but when we did Macbeth at the house… it seemed like a very rough time doing that play. There’s a huge rumor in the theatre world that if you produce the play Macbeth, it is a nightmare. All kinds of ghosts come out, mess with your projects. You get all kinds of things that could go wrong… it’s scary.

“That has gone on for hundreds of years. It is the one play—Shakespeare—that is considered so heinously evil. Because the—the guy invites a guest over to his house and then kills him to become king. So, it’s considered so—such an evil premise, that we don’t. You, know, it’s something that you, you take very seriously if you’re going to do the play, and… that summer it was a nightmare to do the theatre.”

 

The informant added that you can’t say the name Macbeth in the theatre. He said that instead, you’re to refer to it as “The Scottish Play” (and the king as “The Scottish King” and queen as “The Scottish Queen”). He said that everyone in theatre will tell you this, (so he can’t remember where he originally heard it, but he hears it frequently). The informant follows protocol and uses the title “The Scottish Play.”

A teacher he worked with at Santa Monica College “freaked out” when they said they wanted to produce Macbeth, and she directed them to take themselves outside, spin around three times, and spit over their shoulders. The informant said people are very serious about this.

During his production of Macbeth, he had a tenant that refused to leave and was not paying him rent (she was a friend of the informant), but a lease had been signed for another person to move in. He also had a rough time with the director, who had also threatened a lawsuit against one of the actors and well as against the informant.

I’ve heard of this superstition often throughout school where the play is frequently read in classes and performed by theatre students, but the specificities of this telling of it (the squatting renter and the lawsuit-threatening-director) add to the belief. It’s the little things that individuals add to the larger superstition that make it powerful and give it truth value.

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Kicking the Flag Post Before USC Football Games

“It’s for good luck. Right? You’re supposed to kick the flag post for good luck. The old ones had dents in them and people thought they put them—but they were manufactured that way. They had the dents in them. So, you know, it was an interesting thing… I kick it once in a while, but I don’t venture to believe it, but a lot of people do, they’ll kick the flag post on the way to a game.”

 

The informant first learned of this tradition when going to football games as an undergraduate. The informant lamented that nowadays, USC’s traditions are not carried out with the vigor he remembers from his time as an undergrad. He said he has also experienced also a drop in formality in carrying out those traditions at sporting events and at other times. Now that he has returned as an alumnus, he has noticed a change in the students.

I find it fascinating that people who are not traditionally superstitious will participate in a ritual such as this one even without knowing or having any reason for why they do it. Luck seems almost threatening in that large groups of people here have altered their behavior to protect themselves from the off chance that their not participating works against their favor. The ritual becomes the luck itself.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Black Cats in Moldova

“So, when I was in Greece, one of the people that I stayed with that worked at the hostel was from Moldova, which is apparently the coolest place in the world because it has the highest partying—alcohol consumption rate, per person, or something. So anyway, that’s beside the point. So anyways, we were walking around Athens, at, like six in the morning and he saw, like, a black cat cross his path, and he literally hissed at the black cat, spit over his left shoulder, and yelled out a sort of curse thing. And I asked ‘Why… why did you do that? It’s just a black cat.’ And he’s like, ‘It’s incredibly bad luck that it crossed our path,’ you know, ‘we’re going to have so much bad luck, but it’s okay. I took care of it. I did the curse.’ And I didn’t know what he said because it was in Moldovan.”

 

The informant learned of this version of the black cat superstition in 2012. The informant does not know why the specific elements of the hiss, spitting (over the left shoulder specifically), and the curse come into play, but she said that she learned it was all part of breaking the demonic curse put on you by the black cat running in front of you. The informant emphasized that she learned the order of the ritual is very important or “bad luck descend upon you.” She also found it interesting that people were still so into the ritual even in 2012, because she is skeptical of this type of belief.

The counter-curse to the demonic curse is surprisingly similar to a reaction that the cat supposedly doing the cursing may have. The hiss and curse mimic a cat’s hissing and meowing—they both come off as aggressive, animalistic behaviors. I’ve encountered spitting superstitions, but I have never encountered a reason for it (it might refer again to the cat’s hissing/spitting). It seems like in this case of contagious magic, you can reverse the process by repeating the curse (made by the cat) yourself.

Folk speech
Humor

“Ah Ma Schwartz Katter”

“When somebody’s being lame, or kind of a wet blanket, there’s, I mean, okay, I mean, there’s two of them. One of them is “ah ma schwartz katter” which is “oh, my poor little black cat,” and that’s for if they’re being silly. So, just, for instance, if someone is like, ‘oh, poor pathetic me!’ it’s ‘ah, ma Schwartz katter,’ [she mimics patting someone on the head in mock sympathy]. And then sometimes I do a variation on it, which I don’t know if it’s even correct or not, but it’s ‘ah ma brune katter,’ which is ‘ah, my little brown cat.’ But honest to god, it’s probably a huge bastardization of German, I know the actual one when I’m saying it is correct, but I don’t know the actual spelling of it, because my mother did not deem to teach me it.”

 

It’s like saying “oh, poor thing,” but it’s a little bit mocking. The informant uses the brune version because sometimes she likes to “mix it up,” and because her cat is brown. Usually, when she is saying this to someone, it’s her mother (because her father doesn’t “get it”), and she uses the brune version because her mother’s hair is brown.

The informant first learned this when she was about seven from her mother, (who speaks multiple languages, including German). Both she and her mother are of German descent.

This is a good demonstration of how foreign languages are kept partially alive and spread throughout generations who may not be fluent in it. Sayings are easy to remember because of their brevity and they also seem to create strong bonds between those who say them (e.g. the informant here shares this with her mother and brother, but not outside her family or even with her father).

Musical
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Gypsy Rover

The Gypsy Rover

A lullaby that the informant’s  grandmother would sing to her mom:

 

“The gypsy rover came over the hill,

down the through the valley so shady.

whistled and he sand, ‘till the green wood sprang,

and he won the heart of a lady.

“And then it’s like:

“Ah-di-do, ah-di-do-da-day,

ah-di-do-ah-di-day-O!

whistled and he sang, ‘till the green wood sprang,

and he won the heart of a lady.

“And then it’d be like, it, like, there’s a bunch of, um, different parts, but it would be like, the main one of them, was like, this girl falls in love with the gypsy person, and um, her father doesn’t like it, but she’s, but the part that I remember at least:

“He is no gypsy, my father, she said,

the lord of the valley’s all over.

And I shall stay ‘till my dying day,

With the whistling gypsy rover.

“So it’s just, like, a long ballad thing that my mom would sing to me as a lullaby. I can just totally see this being a 70’s ballad now that I think about it, but I always thought it was like, some special song that she knew from somewhere, that was handed down through the generations.”

 

The informant’s mother sang it if she couldn’t get to sleep beginning maybe when she was two or three (her mother had been singing it as long as she could remember). It was her “go-to” lullaby. She is unaware of the origins of the song, but she liked it because it wasn’t a typical lullaby and nobody else had heard it. She also liked it because it is a long saga, and she says she’ll have to write it down so she can sing it to her children at some point.

The tune of this song is easy to follow because it repeats for each stanza throughout the duration of the song (even for the part where words are replaced by sounds). This may be what makes it enjoyable and easy to pass on; however, the length of it (the informant only knew parts of it) may be a hindrance to spreading by those who do not have great memory skills (the informant said she’d have to write it down). The combination of enjoyable easiness and that challenge in the length seem to make it more precious.

Folk Beliefs

French Gardens

“So French-style gardens are very exact in their layout, they’re supposed to ache, like there’s definite vegetation areas, and there’s gravel stuff, and they’re really into doing intricate designs, and you’re supposed to see different things the farther up you are. What you see on high is supposed to be different from what you see, you, know, at straight-ahead level. And the whole theory of it—you know, they have like, multiple level terraces and whatnot, so you’d see, like, a curlicue design if you’re standing inn, like, eagle eye, but if you’re actually staring just straight at it, it looks like different levels of topiaries.

“So the whole theory behind it is that, um, gardens are supposed to be man’s demonstration of his power over nature. So it’s a whole exercise in controlling, you know, what would otherwise be wild nature. And so, it’s about making sure each path is—strictly delineates between, um, say vegetation and gravel, because it demonstrates that man is ultimately at, by God’s design is at the top of the food chain and is therefore able to control any and all elements, and so the more control that you have, and the more intricate the designs, the better demonstration of man’s control over nature.”

 

The informant said that the purpose of the two different views was to further demonstrate skill: if you can trick the eye into seeing one thing from one place, and another thing from another, it was a good demonstration of power. She found that this belief is “in line with French thinking,” which often favors the art of precision and links that with divinity.

She learned about the gardens from one of her teacher’s in France in 2012, (and she found more evidence of the belief when she researched it on the internet). She discovered it started with Italian gardens and tree carving. The informant learned that it is a sort of big game to see how much you can do with plants in a controlled environment, and it was a way for royalty to demonstrate their power (the head gardener for such people was actually a very respected position).

This belief is compelling because it is so widely accepted it doesn’t exist on the margins of French culture, but in its center. The informant said that magazines and other publications exist solely to teach how to garden in the French style. It seems that the original purpose of the gardens (to demonstrate man’s power over nature) has fallen away in a way that it is not obsolete, but it is no longer truly important. The ideology has been totally absorbed by the culture.

Folk Beliefs
Proverbs

“Don’t Use Children or Dogs in Theatre”

“Don’t use children or dogs in theatre.”

 

In theatre, the informant said it’s supposed to be bad luck to use children or dogs in a show. In the informant’s first full run production of a play (as a producer) in 2010, he used several children and one dog. He said that the belief ma be valid because children often have varying degrees of discipline, and both they and dogs can be distracting to audiences. In this production, the informant said the dog pulled focus (her tail was moving back and forth “like a flag” much of the time because she was so happy to have attention).

The informant learned of this when he started doing theatre 10 years ago. He regularly hears it from theatre professionals. He says that because audiences love kids and dogs, they often find them more entertaining than the actors, which is not ideal for those putting on the play. Ultimately, he has found that dogs and children may be difficult to work with, and may steal focus.

Understandably, dogs and children are very distracting because they are so easy to focus on (many YouTube videos will attest to that), so this belief makes sense. However, it could become problematic for productions that require children or dogs because adults dressing up as either could also be distracting. This also causes me to question whether or not writers steer away from adding children or dogs to their plays.

Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Butterfly Stretch

“I remember, we would wake up friggin’ early ass in the morning, and then, we would, like, warm up together and do the butterflies, with, like, our legs crossed, and we would, like, flutter, I don’t know… It’s a stretch, and um… then for some reason, we’d be okay, like, all the little girls, you’d see, like smiling, like oOOoOo… and then we’d do, like, the little circle—the arm circle things, and like you know, you were flying somewhere, like I could just imagine that. I was seven, that was, that was fun. It was fun, pretending to be a butterfly for a little while… because I guess you’re supposed to be graceful, with gymnastics in some sense.”

 

The informant recounted a stretching ritual she would perform with her gymnastics peers at the beginning of each class as something to help break the ice that existed between them at the beginning of the session. She found it especially helped shy or quiet kids and enabled her to talk to her friends after the moment of silliness (her and her peers pretending to be butterflies). She thought it might serve a purpose for her as a college student (“Like, can’t we all do butterflies in class, like, the first day of class?”).

I agree with the informant that a shared performance represents an opportunity for conversation because it creates a shared experience. This is similar, perhaps, to other types of “ice-breaker” performances for adults (which are often other sorts of games), though it has the added benefit of being an exercise.

[geolocation]