Author Archive
Folk speech

Be the Pebble

The informant is a Junior at USC majoring in Choral music.  He is from Santa Cruz California and says that he loves using proverbs in his every day life.


“Be the pebble, let the water wash over you.  Don’t be the boulder”.


The informant first heard this proverb from his parents and said that he uses it frequently.


This proverb was collected in a natural performance.  The informant said this proverb to me when I was complaining about how stressed I was.  For him, it is advice to someone who is stressed, telling them to let it go and not let things worry them.  For the informant it also means that if you worry about things, it just makes everything worse.

This proverb’s use of the imagery of flowing water to symbolize letting things go, living life and not worrying has similarities to phrases such as “go with the flow” and saying something is “water under the bridge”.  Differently from these other phrases, this collected proverb also incorporates the idea that the water of life, so to say, will “wash” over you.  The use of this word implies that the process of struggle is a cleansing one from which people emerge smoother and better, much like the pebbles along beaches or in stream beds are polished by the flow of the water.

This proverb could also be used to advise someone to not stand in opposition to the way things are going, although when the informant used this proverb it did not have this meaning.  Boulders stand against the water and as a result are broken down.  In this aspect, this proverbs holds close ties to the proverb “go with the flow”, as both use water imagery to give advice against combating the current situation and letting things happen as they will.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

Gray hair

Informant is a graduate student studying Vocal Arts/Opera at USC.  She is originally from New York City and just recently moved to Los Angeles.

“If you pluck a gray hair, three will grow back in its place.”

The informant first heard this proverb in New York City and says that, while living there, she heard it a lot.  She shared this proverb when one of our mutual friends was complaining about her gray hairs and wondering whether she should pull them out or not.  After sharing this proverb, several other of our friends (from various parts of the country) chimed in saying that it was bad to pull out gray hairs.  Perhaps this proverb has turned into a folk belief or vice versa.  More information would be necessary to determine this.


This proverb could mean several things: 1. Embrace your grayness, growing old isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  2. If you worry about getting old, you are worrying about things you have no control over instead of living your life 3. A warning against vanity  4. (best interpretation, in my opinion) Worrying about gray hairs causes you stress, connecting this proverb to the folk belief that stress causes gray hairs, therefore worrying about (ie. plucking) your gray hairs will cause more gray hairs to grow


“Hey Cow” game

Informant is a Pre-Med transfer student at USC who grew up in North Dakota.  He shared this game with me when we saw cows outside our windows on a bus going on tour with our choir. I later interviewed him again to get an accurate transcription of this game.

“I was in high school, I don’t know what year, and I went to Bible camp in North Dakota called Park River Bible camp.  And one of the games we would play on the bus, actually I think the only game we would play on the bus – I don’t remember – it was called “Hey, Cow”.

“Basically whenever you saw cows, the people on that side of the bus that the cows were on would yell “Hey Cow” out the window and would try to count how many cows looked at them.  This wasn’t a very strict game, obviously, I don’t think there were judges or anything.

“And then I guess whatever side of the bus had the most cows would win – I don’t know what they would win, they would just win the game. The game goes throughout the bus ride.  You would try to get everyone on your side to yell it so that you get the most volume so that you get the most cows [looking at you].”


The camp was for high school students and the informant says that a lot of people would play the game.  The informant enjoyed the game and thought it was fun but “not very seriously obviously because one side could have more cows than the other, therefore they have an unfair advantage.  It was like very casual competition.”


When asked to interpret why this game is played, the informant said “’cause there’s nothing else in North Dakota!”

While that is amusing, it is not completely true.  There are references online for this game being played all over America.  There is even a website claiming to have the “official “Hey Cow” rules”.  I think this game probably rose with the rise in long distance road trips.  When driving through the grain belt of America, the landscape can often start to feel repetitive and, especially for young kids in the car, might get boring.  Seeing a cow becomes an excitement (especially if you are a city kid) and being able to bother the cow in a casually competitive game could definitely help alleviate the boredom of long drives.


Tales /märchen

“Sadhu and the Shaak” – version 1

The informant is a 19 year old Occupational Therapy student at USC.  She was born in Calcutta, as were her parents.  She moved to California when she was young and has lived here ever since.  Her family is originally from Gujarat, an area in Western India, and she suspects that her family stories are from her Gujarati heritage. 

This version of the story is the one my informant told from her memory, before calling her mom to hear her mom’s version.  Her different version after talking to her mother can be found at this link:

“So there was this Sadhu who was a reincarnation of Mahavira who is one of the greatest Sadhus within the Jain religion. And so, how the Sadhus lived back in the day they lived a simple life, they didnt have any personal belongings or items to their name.  They would go house to house asking people for food and they would provide them with shelter and food.

“So one day the Sadhu was doing this and he came to a house and the lady made this shaak for him, and this shaak is a curry.  It was made of a vegetable that, if not cooked properly it becomes poisonous.  So she didn’t cook it properly and he noticed this but he still took it because it would be rude to say no.

“And instead of throwing it away because he didn’t want to throw it in the trash or throw it on the ground and have the ants eat it and have the ants die, because in the Jain religion the main core principle is Ahimsa which is non-violence to all living things, regardless of how big or small.  So even the killing of ants is not condoned.  So what this saint did, what this Sadhu did was he ate this poisonous shaak and he himself died in order to save the lives of these ants.

“So this is just a parable my mom used to tell me, and it just sort of conveys I guess the main core values of my religion which is just absolute non-violence to all living things and just self-sacrifice above all else, and above selfishness and above your own needs.”






Kario Mart drinking game

The informant is a 21 year old student at USC studying Vocal Arts.  He lives in a house with some friends and they have a copy of Mario Kart.  This game turns Mario Kart into a drinking game.

“Kario Mart is a drinking game.  You are playing Mario Kart but the objective is to finish an entire beer or your drink, whatever it may be, by the time you cross the finish line.  However, because you can not drive while drinking, if you want to drink your drink, you have to set your controller down and effectively stop driving to drink at all.  So you’ll have to start of drinking, or however you want to do it, set your controller down, finish your drink before you cross the finish line.  Otherwise you have to take a shot.”

“I feel like this game is fun for a few rounds until everyone is buzzed well enough that you  forget that you need to play the drinking game and you just play Mario Kart.

“One of my friends told me this game. I would play this game on a weekend evening just hanging out with a small group of friends. You know when you are like ‘what else are we going to do? We’re going to play Mario Kart”.  But you were going to drink anyway so why not incorporate the drinking into the game.”


This game incorporates several elements of modern 20-somethings’ culture.  One element is that there is a strong affinity towards and enjoyment of the games of their youth.  There is a lot of nostalgia in playing video games that you enjoyed when you were young.  This enjoyment is only amplified by a light buzz.

Another element that it incorporates is the understanding that driving while under the influence is dangerous.  It both acknowledges this, by having the rule of the game to be that you technically can’t “drink and drive”, and makes light of it, as one of the main points of the game is to be amused as players’ skill levels drop while they drink more.


Trash re-purposed into purses

The informant is a 23 year old female, originally from Salt Lake City, who recently was a Peace Corps volunteer in the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. While in Ecuador she lived with a host family and observed and participated in many Ecuadorian customs.  One custom she was taught and picked up was the custom of re-purposing old chip, ice cream and other wrappers to make colorful pouches and purses.  She describes her experiences and this folk craft below.

“There’s a strong tradition in Ecuador at least, and I’ve been told in many South American cultures, of doing what is known as “Microempresas” which is a small business – like a cottage industry essentially.  Women especially will make things in their home out of every day objects or easily obtainable objects and resell them within their communities in order to make extra money.  One such activity that I was taught was in making purses and coinpurses up to the size of handbags out of recycled plastic – durable plastic bags such as chip bags or a thicker plastic wrapping that’s easily tearable.  And it’s appealing because you know people eat chips and have ice creams, things like that on a regular basis and it’s [the wrapper] something that would typically be discarded, and yet you can arrange the colors in different patterns.  Because it’s individual folds that are then folded together in a chain it’s variable in its patterns and colors. And then  sown together with wire or a fishing line or something that is also potentially a discarded object in order to make a pouch – and waterproof.  I guess the cool thing about that too is that it also gives an opportunity for people to pass that down within their communities as well as to other people. An easily translatable skill that people tend to get together and do as a community rather than something more self producing. ”

When queried, the informant gave more information about what kind of environment she made pouches in when she was living in Ecuador:

“I would make them solitarily just because it’s something that you can do with your hands while you’re watching TV or something – like knitting.  But people also would get together and you know trade bags and do it as a community effort.”

Information on process:

The first step of the process is cutting or tearing your plastic into usable rectangles.  The size of the rectangles is different depending on how big you want each individual stitch of the ‘weave’ to be.

The steps to transform this rectangle into a usable rectangle that can be hooked with other rectangles created as shown below:

Drawn by collector with input from informant

Drawn by collector with input from informant

You then connect these rectangles together in a line to create loops one rectangle wide.  You then sew all of these loops together, maybe add a zipper, to get you purse, pouch or coin purse


Created by informantt, photo by collector

Created by informant, photo by collector



This folk object definitely serves a useful function.  It is waterproof, looks interesting and the folk method used can produce a variety of different sizes and styles of objects.  The making of a these folk objects seems to build community and unity in two ways.  Firstly, the producers often gather together as a community to make these pouches.  Secondly, it fosters a care for the place they live in a it uses trash that otherwise might have been put into the dump or littered on the streets.  They are both building personal community while protecting/keeping clean their surroundings and environment.

The creation of this folk object is similar in many ways to a type of bracelet it was popular to make when I was young.  I used the same folding method when I was a kid to make bracelets out of Starburst wrappers.  I never sewed any of them together, but both folk objects are similar in their use of bright candy wrappers and the way they are folded.  I had never made or seen a pouch made from this method until shown this folk object.


Suitcase for the New Year

The informant is a 23 year old female, originally from Salt Lake City, who recently was a Peace Corps volunteer in the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. While in Ecuador she lived with a host family and observed and participated in many Ecuadorian customs and traditions.  One tradition she was exposed to was a New Year’s which she describes below.

“A New Year’s tradition was if you hoped to travel in the new year, around the cusp of new year, preferably on the last day of the old year, you were supposed to take an empty suitcase or an empty traveling bag and have it be completely empty but carry it or roll it around the block.  And to do so would symbolize that that empty parcel would be filled with memories and adventures.”

When asked whether this tradition was used to symbolize hopes for both physical travel and metaphorical ‘life journey’ travel (such as getting married, getting a new job, anything that is a major step in the journey of your life), the informant said that she only saw it used to symbolize hopes for physical travels.  She also said that it was not restricted to ages and that both the old and the young participated.



You see a pretty clear direct symbolism in this custom between the empty suitcase and the hope that it will become filled with travel memories.  New Years is a time of beginnings were disappointments in the old year are moved past and hopes are expressed for the year to come.

One interesting aspect of this custom is that the suitcase is rolled around the block.  This could symbolize both that, even though they hope to travel, home will still be with them and, similarly, that they will return home after their travels (their journey around the block both encompasses their home as well as starts and ends at their home).

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ecuadorian Monigotes

The informant is a 23 year old female, originally from Salt Lake City, who recently was a Peace Corps volunteer in the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. While in Ecuador she lived with a host family and observed and participated in many Ecuadorian customs and traditions.  One tradition she was exposed to and participated in was the tradition of burning ‘monigotes’ on New Year’s Eve.  She describes her experiences and this folk ritual below.

“One period of the year when there are a lot of traditions was at the close of the year, so New Year’s Eve.  The tradition that I enjoyed the most was a tradition of immolating the monigotes. Monigote*, uh muñeca means doll, so monigote is a “large doll”. So they are paper-mached objects that came in a variety of forms.  You could typically, especially in bigger cities, you could buy them for popular cultural figures whether that’s like famous soccer players or a lot of just recent movies from that year or famous cartoons, historical figures from like comic books or the history of the country, all just this huge variety.

“And they came in all different sizes from the size of a normal doll more or less all the way to like a story high – you would have to strap it onto the top of your car.  You wouldn’t be able to fit it into your vehicle or carry it.  And so everyone bought what they wanted or you also had the option of making a monigote.

“So you could make one of either – it worked both ways – it could either be someone you liked or someone you disliked or you could do it for yourself, if you wanted good luck in the New Year, if you wanted to destroy and turn into ash the memories from the past year if things had not gone well.  People would often make them for their friends or people in their community.  People would do them of the president.

“So this all accumulated – they would be prepared for often months in advance, starting in October or September, and some of them were incredibly detailed, the paper mache was painted elaborately, and others were more crude and some were just the heads of figures or yourself or your friends, your enemies.

“However, on the 31st of December, all of them are collected together and set into the cross-centers, the cross section of the streets in large piles and filled with fireworks. Then, as the year turned over, you would set them ablaze and they would of course explode and catch everything that wasn’t protected on fire in a kind of glorious sort of heralding in of the New Year”

*Pronounced, using IPA [mu’njegotas]

The informant noted that she was fully welcomed to participate in this festival as a foreigner.  She even contributed two monigotes of her own, a minion and a giant giraffe.  She also mentioned that people of every age participated in this tradition.

“Everyone was welcome into it. It brings the community together.  I lived in a fairly large city and everyone, even if you weren’t close with your neighbors or with people who lived in the apartment you would all get together and it was a unifying activity.”

When discussing her interpretation of the tradition:

“I think there is a lot of symbolism in burning things, in immolating things.  We use them both in the US culture and in Ecuadorian culture to symbolize celebration as well as destruction and purification. It is encompassing of many different emotions.



There are many elements to this custom/festival.  The most obvious one, whose meaning the informant summed up pretty well, is the burning away of the past while simultaneously lighting fires of hope for the future.  In the West, some of our earliest tales involving fire and burning things have they element that fire should be used to burn offerings of good will and hope.  Thus, burning large dolls at a calendrically significant point is an offering of hope for the year to come.

Another interesting aspect of this tradition is its possible connection to harvest rituals, such as those documented by Mannhardt.  The informant says that preparation for these dolls begins in September/October which is a common time around the world for harvest festivals and their accompanying rituals.

Another interesting element of this ritual is the significance of the the fact that the dolls are piled up in the middle of a cross roads, or cross section.  Cross roads often symbolize decisions or the intersection between two significant forces.  New Year’s Eve is the cross section between the old year and the new year.  The association between cross roads and decisions could mean signify either that you are hoping that the burning of these dolls will bless your decisions for the coming year or it be a nod to the fact that it is not all about luck and that your decisions play a role in how the next year will turn out.



Ecuadorian Monigotes - photo by Alexandra Yost

Ecuadorian Monigotes – photo by informant

Burning monigotes - photo by Alexandra Yost

Burning monigotes – photo by informant

Folk Beliefs

Haircut good luck rub

Informant is a 23 year old woman from Salt Lake City, Utah.  

“My family has a tradition that, especially when the men in the family get haircuts, or, I suppose those with shorter hair, there is a space in the back of the neck – at the nape of the neck – with freshly shorn or buzzed hair that you rub it and it not only gives a delightful tickling sensation but its said to give good luck if it is done before the close of the day in which someone got the haircut.  But its not only applicable to men.  The only rule is that the hair had to be cut the same day.”

She does not remember who initiated this tradition, and says that it has been ‘ever present’ in her life.  She supposes that it probably came from her mother initially.


This custom could be seen as a form of Contagious folk magic. The luck of the person with the hair cut travels via the nape of their neck to anyone who rubs it that day.

This folk item could be interpreted that the person whose hair was just cut has been lucky (they have been ‘beautified’), and by rubbing their neck, the family member could hope for future luck, in looks or otherwise, for themselves.  A more likely interpretation however is that this folk item is used as an aid to a social interaction that can sometimes become awkward.  Whenever someone changes their appearance, especially if it is only a slight change, socially awkward or tricky situations can occur.  If the change is slight enough (ex. a man with already short hair gets a trim) there is the chance that people will not notice.  Having a situation where someone offers you the nape of their neck to rub lessens the potential for a faux pas by making it clear that they recently got a haircut.  It also, significantly, creates a socially acceptable scenario for a the hair-cutee to seek for and receive compliments on their new look without seeming vain, all under the guise that they are innocently offering their family member good luck through post-haircut neck rubbing.

When asked how she feels about this tradition and how she interprets it, she said:

“I think no one is laboring under the delusion that your luck would actually change one way or the other but it brings some sort of celebration of change and marking of moving forward, and your upkeep of your appearance as well as marking a period of time until your next haircut. It’s a good unifier, it’s a good tradition to have.”

Earth cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Persian bean sprouts – Nowruz tradition

The informant is a 19 year old student studying Vocal Arts at the University of Southern California.  Her heritage is Jewish and Persian and she speaks Hebrew and Farsi.  Her family maintains many of their Persian traditions from various regional cultures in Iran.  The informant is Kashi (from Iran’s Kashan region) from her Dad’s side, while her mother’s side is from Tehran (maternal grandfather) and Komijan (maternal grandmother).  The informant herself mainly identifies with the Kashi culture.

“Something that my family does is when we’re like driving on Nowruz which is like New Year, we put a plate of like [bean] sprouts on our car.  And then they just fall off whenever.  We just drive the car to wherever we’re going and when they fall of they fall off.”

“I’m not sure what it symbolizes, its just a thing we do. I think it has to do with horse carriages at some point; they would do it and then the sprouts would fall and that would symbolize joy and New Year and rebirth or something.”