Author Archives: Jeremy Katz

Proverb – USA


“If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”

I first heard this proverb from my father (Philip Katz) when I was 17 years old.  I recall a time period in my life that was extremely chaotic and stressful; SAT’s, college applications, schoolwork, and Ice Hockey.  While ice hockey has always been one of my greatest passions in life, our mediocre record didn’t seem rewarding for the amount of time that I had sacrificed to play.  The first time I remember hearing the saying came after we lost a close game. I was sitting in my room staring at my computer when I heard my dad tell me, “if it doesn’t kill you Jeremy, it makes you stronger.”  From then on out he said it to me a number of times, when I was frustrated with work or upset over a grade.  He first learned the proverb from his father (my grandfather) when he was in high school as well.  He remembers his dad using the proverb after he broke his leg trying to do a back flip off of a enormous boulder at a park in his hometown of Great Neck, New York.

He informed me that the proverb can be used in a number of situations, but all deal with something bad or negative that happens or could potentially happen to someone.  “It’s similar to looking at the silver lining of something,” as he puts it.  The proverb is trying to say that unless “it,” this problem or potentially harmful item is so powerful that it actually “kills,” it will make you a stronger and more advance person who will be able to contest future problems and will have a deeper understanding of himself.  Take for example my father giving me this proverb after I lost an crucial hockey game.  Losing the game wasn’t enough to “kill” me or even otherwise destroy my passion for the game or ability to play, but it was able to teach me not only the ways in which I individually could improve as a player, but also how our team could compete together and increase our chances of being successful.

The saying fits the traditional definition of folklore because it has no known author and is characterized by multiplicity and variation.  The proverb certainly expresses a philosophical outlook or world-view of (some) Americans.  I would classify it as free phrase as the saying could certainly change, and likely has evolved over time while still possessing the same meaning.  Furthermore it is undoubtedly trying to convince somebody of something and thus an example of rhetoric.  Just as folklorists have called proverbs the “wisdom of the ages,” (Lecture 2/5/08) I can see how one might use this proverb as beneficial insight into coping with problems and understanding how one might react to negative consequences.

Superstition – Korea


“Whistling at night attracts evil spirits.”

Paul learned this superstition from his father when he was 9 years old.  He remembers the instance when he picked it up and to this day, he follows it religiously. He recalls a night when he was trying to sleep.  His dad came in to his room to say goodnight, and heard Paul whistling from his bed.  His dad, with a serious expression on his face, ordered him to stop.  He told him that his father passed this superstition onto him when he was little, but he wanted to be tough and he didn’t listen.  He said he was home alone one night when he was in his early teens and he started to whistle.  That night he had a traumatic experience. He wouldn’t give Paul any further details but begged him not to whistle at night.  In talking to me, Paul has no idea why this superstition exists, or where it originally comes from (his father was born in Korea, he was born here in L.A.).  He also has no idea if his father was just pulling his leg, or if he really had “an experience” with an evil spirit because he refuses to tell him.  Paul suggested a potential background on the superstition, “Koreans are really afraid of the dark.  Someone one day decided that making as little noise at night was the best way to keep evil forces away.”

Whatever the significance of the superstition, Paul swears by it.  He loves to whistle, but when the sun comes down, he refuses to, especially when he is alone.  I interviewed him on campus at Leavey Library at about 8PM, and he told me that in his short bike ride back to his fraternity house on 28th street, he wouldn’t even think of whistling, not even for a second.  In interviewing him, I was not at all surprised that he abides by the superstition to the extent that he does.  Personally, I am a big believer in superstition; when I lose an eyelash I always make a wish, and I refuse to walk under a ladder.  Paul similarly has lived his life never whistling at night after learning about the superstition.  I find it funny how nobody knows why any of these superstitions exist, but because we were raised believing that they are true, we always abide by them.

Joke – USA


“Why are there no Mexicans in the Olympics?”
“Because all of the ones that can run, jump, and swim have already come across the border!”

Chris told me that he first heard this joke when he was a sophomore at Westview High School in San Diego.  One of his friends told it to him when they were walking home from school one afternoon.  Because San Diego is so close to the Mexican border it seems natural that the region would have a lot of racist Mexican jokes like this one.  Fortunately, Chris informed me that despite the racist and undeniably offensive humor of this joke, he had many Mexican and Mexican-American friends in high school who were not offended.  As Chris puts it, “Mexican jokes and stereotypes were prominent amongst the kids at his high school because of the diverse demographic of both his community and the city as a whole.”  While this joke is outlandish and ridiculous, one might see how it exploits the notion that Mexicans continue to immigrate into the country.  Furthermore, the joke underscores the fictional, yet someone comical depiction of Mexican immigrants scrambling across the desert border as Americans yell at them and gun shots wiz by.

This joke ties in nicely to the idea of the bluson populaire or popular conceptions or stereotypes that we studied in this class.  Frequently, individuals will make ethnic jokes to highlight stereotypes of different ethnic groups and reaffirm the belief that this world is a battle between “us” and “them” (Lecture 2/12/08).  This joke certainly makes fun of Mexicans and attempts to address the stereotype that all athletic Mexicans would have no reason to stay in their country and would therefore use their abilities to come here.  This is of course completely untrue and largely racist, but does enforce the idea that it is us (America) versus them (Mexico), and to combat this ethnic struggle we must take advantage of them by joking about their country and culture.

Game – USA


“Beer Hockey”

Adam Schall learned how to play this game as a freshman here at USC.  While the rules of the game are not set in stone, they [as reported by him] are as follows:  Players (while 2 are needed to play—3 or more is ideal) all sit around a table (round or oval shape is preferred but not necessary) with a bottle or glass of beer.  It is important that there be a plentiful stash of quarters in someone’s possession or near the table.  To start the game, one player spins a quarter to the center of the table and calls out another players name.  The player whose name was called must try to whack the quarter (however he desires) at one of the other player’s bottles.  Each player may try to block the quarter with his/her index and pinky fingers only.  In the event the quarter makes contact with the bottle (the sound is usually loud and recognizable and thus the game can be played in a loud environment—hence why bottles are used), the individual who got hit enters a “drinking round.”  During this round, the player must drink his beer for as log as all the other players can keep a quarter spinning.  In the event that someone tries and succeeds in stopping the quarter upright, the player in the “drinking round” must finish his entire beer.  However if someone tries to stop the quarter upright and ends up killing the spin, then that individual must chug his beer.  The players usually get very into the game, setting each other up to make different people drink and reacting emotionally when someone’s bottle gets hit.

This game fits the criteria of one of those “useless drinking games” that college students play and use to get drunk.  While neither Adam nor myself had heard of the game before coming to USC, we had both been exposed to our own fair shares of drinking games, some similar, some different.  Drinking games are an interesting example of folklore because kids are always arguing over specified rules, which change from place to place depending on the types of kids, how heavily they drink, and how they learned to play the game.  Speaking as someone who came across the country to go to college, drinking games in New York and L.A. may have the same name, but almost always, the rules are vastly different.  Those who play the games feel very passionate about the rules that they were taught and thus different regulations can be a heated topic of discussion.

Recipe – USA


“Matzah Brie”
Philip informed me that he first learned the recipe for Matzah Brie during Passover, a Jewish holiday that takes place on the 15th day of Nisan (from the Hebrew Calendar), and celebrates the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.  As the story goes, the Jews were in such a hurry to leave that they had no time to wait for their bread to rise and were forced to eat unleavened bread.  As a result, Jews are not allowed to consume leavened bread, yeast, flour, or grain for one week.  Matzah, the cracker like unleavened bread that Jews eat during this week is dry and has virtually no taste.  As a result, Jews have been coming up with different recipes and ways to mix and experiment with it for several years.  One such creation consisting of matzah is known as “Matzah Brie,” or the “kosher for Passover” French toast to some (something that is “Kosher for Passover” is ok to eat during the holiday).  The creation has no definite recipe, but generally is made with matzah soaked in eggs, just like French toast.  Philip however, has added his own ingredients to the already folk recipe to create his own “Matzah Brie.”  He begins by mashing the matzah up into small pieces.  He then soaks the matzah in beaten eggs (the number of eggs depends on the amount of matzah used, which depends on the number of people he is cooking for).  Then he adds 3 different types of cheese; American, Swiss, and Cheddar, as well as chopped tomato, onion, garlic, and mushrooms.  After he lets this stand for 5 minutes, he puts it all into a frying pan and slowly adds butter as everything cooks.  He cooks the food for about 10 minutes, until everything is hot, and then serves.  Fortunately for those who don’t like vegetables and cheese, he has devised different ways of altering the recipe  One such way is to follow the more traditional, “French toast” type, in which he doesn’t add cheese or vegetables, but instead substitutes sugar, a bit of honey, and then after cooked, some powdered sugar.  This obviously has a much sweeter taste and can be served with either jam or syrup.  Then there’s another way that he makes it, “with an Asian twist to it” as he states.  This way, he doesn’t add cheese, but does add the vegetables of his choosing.  Instead of adding butter, he adds soy sauce, and scallions as he lets the dish cook in the pan.

Philip first learned this recipe on Passover when he was in his early twenties.  His mother was a terrific cook, and had all sorts of recipes for special dishes on Jewish holidays.  She showed him “Matzah Brie” when he was hungry and looking for something to eat one Passover.  She also described, in detail, the different ways that the dish could be cooked and prepared, and as a result, he was able to devise the three different ways of making it.  This dish is a great example of folklore because while there are published recipes for “Matzah Brie,” on the website “My Jewish Learning” for example, no one knows where the original recipe came from.  Furthermore, it has certainly evolved as it has been passed down from generation to generation, Philip recalls that his mother learned it from her mother, and this pattern likely continued as mothers and fathers passed down the recipe to their children on Passover.  As years have gone by, the recipe has certainly evolved and improved in different ways to the liking of those who cook and eat it.

Mason, Lee.  “Matzah Brie” My Jewish 2005

Superstition – USA


“When pregnant, you must not physically change your house, set up any furniture, or otherwise alter any room in preparation for your child.  You may have things ordered or purchased, but nothing can be set up or altered for the baby’s arrival.”
Nancy told me that she first learned this superstition when she was pregnant with her first child in 1987.  She was nervous over the whole process and her only prayer was that she would give birth to a healthy child.  She recalls a phone conversation with her mother Elaine Lieberman, living in St. Louis, Missouri who informed her of a Midwestern folk belief that her mother told her when she was pregnant with Nancy.  She was careful in her instructions; nothing in the house should be changed, and she should do no renovation or other alteration for the baby.  As Nancy described her conversation with her mother; “this was a jinx to the pregnancy and could complicate it, or god-forbid, otherwise affect it.”  She went on to state that things could be purchased or ordered form a store, but nothing was to be set up nor  were any physical accommodations to be made to any room in the house.  Nancy says that she did not ask questions and went along with the superstition.  Nancy can’t express how thankful she was that the pregnancy went smoothly.  Of course, she followed the same superstition in giving birth to her two other children, both pregnancies went very well she is overjoyed to report.

This is a terrific example of folk superstition.  Though we know that Elaine heard it from her mother and thus it can be traced back to the Midwest, we will never know the true origin with certainty.  Strangely enough, there are several “jinx” based folk superstitions very similar to this one.  While I was in high school in Scarsdale, New York, the school-wide superstition for those waiting to hear back from colleges was that they could not wear any paraphernalia from any of the schools that they wanted to get into or they would get rejected.  People could buy or order hats, shirts, sweatshirts, etc. from the schools of their choice (they frequently did this after visiting the gift shop on a college tour), but could not wear it until they had officially got in.  I know I refused to wear anything “USC” until I was officially accepted as not to jinx my fate.  It is interested recognize the similarities between these two folk superstitions.  We will never know if they are the results of two cognates that were created in two different places and evolved differently, or if the superstition really comes from the Midwest but spread and evolved into a different form as it traveled to the east coast.

Proverb – Czech Republic

Rhyme/Proverb—Czech Republic

“Tso sje, hovno se close, spaldo delose, us se ne close”
“The shit is gliding, but when it hits the puddle, it glides no more.”

Nate informed me that he first heard this saying when he was 15 years old.  He was a freshman at Prague High School in his hometown of Prague, Czech Republic.  He doesn’t recall who told him the proverb exactly, but knows that it was one of his friends.  It is a rhyme that his friends used to say to one another, both because it is a rhyme and is funny to hear and say, but also because it has meaning.  He told me that at first when he was just a freshman, his friends used to say it back and forth, but it wasn’t until they were older that they stopped to examine it’s meaning.  It was at this point that they began saying it to one another with more purpose.

Though Nate assured me that there are multiple interpretations of the saying, his friends and him generally used it in the same circumstance.  Usually this came when something unfortunate happened to someone.  When this happened, one individual would tell the other what the problem was, and he would reply with this proverb as an answer.  The idea behind the saying is that the “shit” or problem may have been problematic, but once it did it damage, it “glides no more,” or in other words, it ceases  to exist and will do no more harm.  This proverb was especially popular among the younger kids in Czech both because it’s vulgar, but also because adults would likely deem it inappropriate to say, especially in a professional setting.  It might be compared to the American expression “Shit happens,” as in this country we like to say it because it’s to the point, is somewhat crude, and while containing meaning, can allow someone to laugh while beginning to forget that which has caused them discomfort.  This is the theory behind the Czech expression; it is used to let people let go of their problem(s) laugh, and look to the future.

Practical Joke – USA

Practical Joke—USA

“During the first day of practice on the varsity Ice Hockey team at Scarsdale High School, the seniors stole all of the freshman equipment (during a team meeting) and hid it in a closet at the rink.  When the freshman saw that their gear was gone, the upperclassmen acted clueless and suggested that it was stolen.  Finally, right before practice began, the seniors brought the equipment back and everyone found the whole ordeal hilarious.”
I first learned about this practice joke when it was performed on me during my first practice, freshman year.  Unfortunately for me, everyone had me and the other 3 freshman on the team convinced to the point that we were all extremely upset that our equipment had been stolen.  The practical joke was believable because the four of us had all put our equipment in the same locker room, right next to the entrance of the rink.  The rink is located in a somewhat dangerous and crime ridden section of town, and it was therefore believable that someone might have come in quickly and stole our stuff without being seen.  Furthermore for us freshman, it was our first practice on a varsity team and all of us were nervous, not knowing what to expect.  We had been warned that the first practice would be physically difficult, but there were all kind of stories that went around about freshman getting abused during their first varsity practice.  Fortunately, that was not the case.  But the upperclassmen certainly scared us all.

This practical joke occurs virtually every year from what we were told.  While nobody knows exactly which senior class started it, the tradition is kept alive year after year.  This is a great example of folklore because it supports Von Gennup’s theory, which recognizes the importance of practical jokes as a right of passage (Lecture 2/7/08).  He noted that practical jokes were usually present during the liminal period of someone’s life; a life transition like a marriage or initiation to a team or society.  The rational behind this is that you know that you are a member of this “group” when you know the practical jokes that have been played on everyone else.  Just as Von Gennup theorized, the practical joke that was played on myself and the other freshman came during our liminal period, when we were in the process of becoming members of the team.  After the joke was played on us, we now expect it and are “part of the team.”

Proverb – India

“Sir ché swa hooked ah pani?”
“What the hell is in your head?”

Jesjit first heard this from his grandmother when he was about 10 years old and living in India.  His grandmother, a very kind and loving woman, is sometimes “honest and straightforward” as Jesjit describes her.  He said that sometimes when he was little, he would cause trouble with his older brother and sister.  Whenever his grandmother would see him making trouble, she would yell this proverb at them.  Apparently it is an old Indian expression, which can be used as a way of asking in a somewhat condescending tone, “what the hell is wrong with you? What are you thinking?!”  Jesjit recalls one particular instance in which he was wrestling with his older sister when he pushed her up against a wall and accidentally left her with a rather large bruise.  His grandmother tended to his sister and then looked at Jesjit and said this proverb with contempt.  Although his grandmother did use this proverb, Jesjit would like to emphasize that his grandmother was and is a very caring and respectful lady who expresses herself freely to her family because she loves them.

This expression represents a typical proverb.  Though it may not be considered as rhetorical or insightful as some other expressions, it fits certain situations nicely and is used by a number of individuals.  Jesjit recalls that his friends sometimes said it to one another when they wanted to question one another’s judgment or speech.  Even though some may interpret the saying as somewhat disrespectful and inappropriate it is generally used in a familiar way amongst friends and family so those who use it make sure that it isn’t taken the wrong way, which it rarely is because it is commonly recognized as an expression not a personal attack or offense.

Catch Riddle – California

Catch Riddle—USA

“If you ask someone to say I’m a Math Debater! Five times fast, it sounds like they are saying I’m a Masturbator!”

Marcelo informed me that this was one of his favorite riddles because it works every time, and because everyone always gets a good kick out of it.  He first heard it from one of his close friends when he was a junior at his high school, Palos Verdes Peninsula High in Southern California.  It is a pretty simple catch riddle; a way of getting someone to say something that they ordinarily would never, and is vulgar, inappropriate and hilarious.  Usually when someone performs the riddle, he or she does it in front of a large group of friends so that the victim will feel more embarrassed and sometimes even humiliated.  From Marcelo’s personal experience, the victim usually gets really red in the face and buries his face in his hands.  Right after this victim utters the phrase five times fast, there is a pause in the group, and everyone looks at each other, and then bursts out into laughter.  Though Marcelo does not know where the riddle originally came from he believes that he’s heard the same catch riddle throughout California, both southern and northern, so it likely originated somewhere on the west coast.  Either way, he has been using on kids at USC ever since he started school here in August 2007.