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folk metaphor
Folk speech

Deep Throat

After the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s, journalists in newsrooms across America began to use the term “Deep Throat” to describe a source, or informant, with a lot of previously undisclosed information.

A common way to use the term was “I’m looking for a Deep Throat,” meaning that the reporter was looking for an informant with valuable information that would help to break a story.

The term derives from the nickname given to William Mark Felt, Sr., deputy director of the FBI during the 1970’s, and the secret informant who helped to expose the Watergate Scandal. He was nicknamed Deep Throat by Howard Simmons, managing editor of the Washington Post, in order to keep his identity anonymous. The name comes from Deep Throat, a popular and controversial film in the 1970’s. Because of the popularity of the film, “Deep Throat” became a term used commonly enough so as not to draw any attention to the informant himself.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are the two reporters most famous for exposing the Watergate Scandal. With their reporting alone, they helped to topple an entire administration. More than almost any other event in the latter half of the twentieth century, the Watergate Scandal proved investigative journalism’s immense power to change society. Thus, for my informant, “Deep Throat” carries with it connotations of prestigious and powerful journalism. It reinforces her belief in the profession.

My informant is my mother, a 60-year old woman who spent 20 years working as a journalist for a variety of different newspapers. She remembers first hearing the term from other reporters in the mid-1970’s, after the Watergate Scandal had worked its way into American popular culture and terminology.

I believe my mother enjoys this term so much because it speaks to the hard-working, competitive environment that she experienced within American newsrooms. Those wishing to find their “Deep Throat” weren’t only hoping to break a story. They were hoping to break a big story. She recalls the thrill of finding previously undiscovered sources and beating her co-workers to an important story. According to her, it was a highly rewarding rush, and I believe the term brings her back to that feeling.

It’s particularly interesting and touching to learn the term because it speaks to the fast-paced, ambitious nature of print journalism work, work which was such a huge part of my mother’s life and is now rapidly disappearing due to the emergence of online news outlets. I wonder if the thrill and drive to break big stories is as strong in the absence of a physical newsroom full of journalists looking for their “Deep Throat”.

For more information, see:

Woodward, Bob. The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Folk speech

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold.

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold” is a chant sung around the campfire by Girl Scouts as long ago as the 1960’s.

This chant encourages young people never to abandon an old friend for the sake of a new one. Because “old” rhymes with “gold,” I assume that the old friends are gold, and the new friends are silver. This implies that there is something more inherently valuable about old friends.

I imagine it works particularly well in a camp environment, where many young people are anxiously seeking social comfort and status. It is easy for them to get caught up in the feverish nature of it all, and abandon old friends for new, possibly more popular ones. However, this chant encourages them never to do so, as a new friend’s value cannot match an old one’s. It doesn’t discourage them from making new friends, but it does advise them to keep in mind the value of relationships that have had a chance to develop over a long time. In this way, it helps to foster an ever-expanding yet stable network of friendships within the Girl Scout troupe. I also believe it serves as a warning to young girls to avoid the cattiness and exclusivity typical of adolescents.

The informant is my mother. She remembers learning this chant at Girl Scout camp in the 1960’s from camp counselors and other girl scouts. It was often performed around a campfire. I asked my mother what the chant means to her to which she replied:

“They are both very precious…An old friend is really valuable because they know you and you’ve come to trust each other. Keeping them close while making new friends seems to make so much sense to me.”

She often repeated it to me as I was growing up. I believe she did so because it is one of the tenements she has lived her life by. She always relishes the opportunity to meet a new, interesting person, but prioritizes her long-standing relationships.

I believe it’s a particularly poignant chant, especially for children to hear. It is very tempting for children to abandon their old friends when they find new, shiny ones. This is a dangerous trap that robs them of people who know and love them. In this way, the chant is a smart, succinct warning against dangerous impulses that exist within every child’s mind.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

Knocking on wood

After declaring something positive regarding his or her future, an observer of this tradition will knock on wood to ensure that the future does not turn out the opposite. Knocking on wood is a way of avoiding a jinx, or the opposite of what one hopes to happen turning into a reality after one expresses that original hope. An observer of this superstition will say “Knock on wood,” literally knock on wood, or do both in order to avoid an ill fate.

My informant always does both, and with a laugh to accompany it because he knows others view it as silly. He doesn’t believe that it literally wards off ill fate, but he does believe that it affects his mental space in a way that manifests into a more positive reality.

I asked him to describe this effect and he said:

“It doesn’t matter whether anyone else is into it, it just matters to me. As long as I get my head ok, then everything else is fine.”

I asked if he learned it from anyone else, to which he said:

“No, I figured it out on my own.”

I asked if anyone else in his group of friends or family observes the tradition to which he replied:

“No, I’m the only freak.”

My informant is a 44-year old massage therapist who lives in Pasadena, CA. He struggled with OCD as a child, and ever since then, has worked hard to maintain a calm inner life. Those with OCD often have their thoughts manifest themselves into ugly realities. They think something irrational, and then they do something irrational. So it makes complete sense that my informant would use this tradition as a technique to avoid that very pattern. I imagine for many, knocking on wood is not just an abstract superstition, but a small yet effective way of quieting their minds.


The House of Endless Renovation

This is a story passed between adult residents of Pasadena, CA. It refers to an actual house in the city that my informant has never seen, but has definitely heard of.

“This woman was convinced by a psychic or something that as long as she kept the…the construction on her house going, she’d be alright or something like that. So she would just do renovation after renovation, add on after add on, and it’s a very strange house in that like there’s stairways that lead up to blank walls that do nothing. They were built just to be built to keep the renovation alive, you know? There was construction until she died, and of extremely old age.”

My informant is a 44-year old massage therapist who lives in Pasadena, CA. He remembers first hearing this story from a neighbor 20 years ago, when he first moved to the city. It is often performed between neighbors on front lawns and at dinner parties. My informant enjoys telling it because, as he said, “It’s so like something you’d hear in a fairy story.” My informant is an avid fan of fantasy books and folk tales, and I imagine seeing the aesthetic and tropes of those worlds cross over with his own gives him a special thrill.

I believe this story vents two frustrations that residents of a place like Pasadena, California might have. For one, it is an almost comical criticism of psychics, and the way in which they can easily lead their customers into acting irrationally. Secondly, it is a harsh commentary on the frivolous spending of the upper class. Pasadena is an affluent neighborhood, and this story satirizes those people who can afford to spend their money on things like endless renovations. This story also has a spookiness to it reminiscent of suburban haunted house stories, and makes me wonder if well into middle age, people still have a desire for this kind of thrilling mystery.

Folk speech

“I’m Resting”

Informant: “You came up to a door that was open, and the guy’s splayed out with his ass in the air and he sees you in the mirror or something and if he doesn’t like you, or it’s not necessarily that he doesn’t like you, but he doesn’t want you to fuck him, he says, “Oh, no, I’m just resting.”

This practice is observed in gay men’s bathhouses in the United States. It is part of bathhouse code, a verbal and nonverbal communication system used between gay men to express sexual preference within the bathhouse setting.

My informant is a 44 year old gay massage therapist and lives in Pasadena, CA. I asked him to describe how he learned this euphemism.

“I learned it from experiencing it. It was at this one [bathhouse] in North Hollywood and I used to live right next to it. I just remember this guy, like I said, he was just totally hot, blah, blah, blah, layin’ there, ass in the air. And the mirror is on the back wall opposite the door, so, you know, you can face away and still keep an eye. And he sees me and I was just standin’ there like, you know, half-jackin’ it under my towel. He’s just like “I’m resting!” [laughs] and I went away.”

I asked my informant why he enjoys this piece of folklore:

“I appreciate the primal nature of, I don’t know, the gays, I guess you could say, the primal nature of the homosexuals, homosexual men anyway. Not having to speak female language, you know. It’s a lot easier to sex to male.”

I think this phrase speaks to a larger culture of simple, direct communication about sex among homosexual men. I also think it speaks to a standard of kindness and maturity that can be found within some gay communities. I think my informant appreciates the fact that there is an established code phrase for saying “no thank you” in a way that will not hurt someone’s feelings. It shows a careful consideration of the vulnerability and effort required of someone looking for sexual intercourse. I also find it really interesting that the phrase “I’m resting” has nothing to do with sexuality. I think this is left over from a tradition of coded terminology employed by gay men for much of the twentieth century. They were not allowed to openly discuss their sexuality, and so had to codify their language to communicate with each other while still retaining social standing within a heteronormative world.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Warm milk with honey

As a child, my father was frequently given warm milk with honey mixed in as a sleeping aid when he was feeling ill. I asked him to describe his experience of this folk medicine:

“That was a sleeping aid and of course my—I mean, again, it’s a combination of the personal and the impersonal. When, when my Mom gave it to me, it was unbelievably precious, even then it was unbelievably precious. You would be awake, you would be taken downstairs sometimes, you know, in other words, it would feel very special and private. And the memory brings back the light. In other words, the 50’s—the 1950’s lightbulb—they were just different from what we have. And it brings back the softer light and all that kind of thing.”

My informant is my father, a 62-year old English professor in New York City. He was given this remedy during his childhood, but rarely gave it to my brother and I. Recalling warm milk with honey brought this thought to his mind:

“But there was a double sense. There was a sense that this is the way things are done in your house but that they’re going on all over the place too. And that you’re part of a larger world that does this. And it always surprises me that milk and honey is not in everyone’s lives.”

I think my father enjoys this folk medicine because it brings up memories of his mother, who died 25 years ago. But I find it really interesting that he did not pass it down to me. I imagine some folklore is so tied to specific people that it feels more like a treasure shared with him or her rather than something to be passed on. In this case, warm milk with honey may have been something my father wanted to preserve as a special thing between him and his mother. It may not have even occurred to him to pass onto his children, because it was so connected to the child within him. After all, it is milk and honey, two of the sweetest, most nurturing substances fed to baby. They tap into the baby within us all. So, this may be a piece of folk medicine that taps into only the baby within my father, and not the parent.


Rick Perry’s Hotel Meetup

My informant recounted to me this legend about Rick Perry, former governor of Texas.

“A guy was called for gay sex in an arrangement where he’d go to a hotel room that would be open. He’d get on the bed. He’d get prone. And the guy who called him would come into the hotel room into the complete darkness in the room, have sex with him, and leave. And, um, so this happened. But he turned around and he caught some light from the hallway and saw the guy as he was leaving and it was Rick Perry in like this sweaty jogging suit in some Austin hotel.”

My informant is a 25-year old man who studied government at the University of Texas at Austin. He worked for several democratic campaigns and blogged about Texas politics. He learned this piece of folklore from other Texas Democrats between the years 2009 and 2012. It was passed around over beers at Democratic events. It became more widespread after it was publicized in a book called Head Figure Head: The Search for the Hidden Life of Rick Perry which sought to expose Perry’s private homosexual activities.

My informant particularly enjoys telling this story because of “the grossness of the jogging sweater suit thing.” From a storyteller’s point of view, he enjoys “just how seedy it all is, this seedy dark arrangement that Perry is like, lasciviously participating in on the sly.” He also marvels at “all the people that are making these arrangements for him, his aids who have seen him do these things, and live out in the world not telling anyone.” It also frustrates my opponent that “no one close to him will confirm it.”

My informant is staunchly against Perry, and resents how much media attention he has gotten in recent years, especially regarding his homophobic views. I think my informant enjoys telling this story because it portrays the politician is such a creepy, hypocritical light. Regardless of whether or not it’s true, I think this urban legend speaks to how suspicious the American public is of its politicians. We have seen so many political sex scandals over just the last ten years, that there’s almost an assumption that a given politician is having an affair. Furthermore, it speaks to the common belief that behind every homophobe is a homosexual.

For more information on this legend, see:

Maxey, Glen. Head Figure Head: The Search for the Hidden Life of Rick Perry. Austin: Glen Maxey, 2011.


Davey Case

My informant recounted this legend from his summer camp.

“A guy counselor got obsessed with a female counselor while they were setting up camp, and his name was like, Da…Davey…Davey Case or something. There were pictures of him in like old…um…books. And basically he like chased her and she was, like, terrified, and he escaped and nobody knew where he was before camp started. And camp started and everything was normal, and then, this is the part that is unconfirmed, he then came…came back to camp, found her bunk and was like, in the process of strangling her, you know, like in the middle of the night while she was on watch or something so not outside…so she’s like outside of her bunk. And then he, like, escaped again, and was caught like a day later, like, in the Adirondack woods, like, out of his mind.”

This is a legend passed between campers ages 8 to 15 at Brant Lake Camp in the Adirondacks, NY. It was the backstory for a camp monster, what my informant describes as “a rogue counselor who like stalked the camp.” My informant assures me that the first part of the story, in which one counselor became obsessed with another and then ran away, is probably true, while the second part in which he comes back to strangle her and is afterwards found in the woods, is unconfirmed andy likel not true.

My informant is a 25-year old male who attended Brant Lake Camp for 5 years between 2000 and 2004. He remembers hearing the story his first year. It was frequently told to campers by counselors in their bunks at night. Then campers would add things, and compare stories with each other. They’d also look for Davey Case’s picture in old camp photos. My informant particularly enjoys telling this story because it’s a good spooky story and he remembers the thrilling feeling of fear that it instilled in him.

I imagine this legend served to unite the campers, as they had something to communally be afraid of. Furthermore, it probably served as a warning from counselors to campers, a way of convincing them to do something or not to do something with an attack by Davey Case being the dire alternative. Lastly, I think it speaks to sexual angst experienced by boys at sleepaway camp age. They feel strong sexual urges for women beginning to develop, and this is a story of those feelings brought to a violent and horrifying extreme. It’s a way for them to discuss their feelings of sexual frustration without acting on them, or embarrassing themselves by making it too personal. Telling a legend about someone else is a safer, more distanced way to discuss personal issues you yourself might be experiencing.

Folk Beliefs

Never pass a knife

It is a common belief among Greek-Americans that passing a knife or other sharp object will lead to a physical altercation between the person passing and person being passed to. Instead of passing the knife or other sharp object, an observer of the superstition will place it on a table and allow the other person to pick it up.

The informant believes this superstition speaks to the passionate and temperamental nature of Greek-Americans. According to him, “Greek people are always fighting.” But while he observes the tradition, he doesn’t believe it does anything to prevent conflict, as, according to him, Greek people will fight regardless of whether or not a knife was passed between hands.

My informant is a Greek-American student at the University of Southern California. He grew up in a entirely Greek-American family in Long Island, NY. The informant and his whole family have observed this superstition for as long as he can remember. It is always observed at meals and in kitchens, where one most often finds knives. My informant often lovingly mocks Greek-Americans’ tendencies. I think it speaks to his love for the uniqueness of individual cultures, which, as a filmmaker, he is especially attuned to.

This superstition has an interesting self-knowledge verging on self-deprecation to it. It warns that a kind action (sharing an object) between people can easily turn into a cruel one (fighting) and that it’s best to avoid the kind action altogether. In this way, it is not just an arbitrary fear but also a painfully true proverb that speaks to all of our fickle and temperamental natures, not just Greek-Americans’.


Washing a child’s mouth out with soap

When a child uses a swear word or misbehaves in some other way, a parent may wash his or her mouth out with a bar of soap. My mother used this punishment on me when I was three years old. We were playing around in her bed when all of a sudden, I spat in her face. She rushed me to the bathroom and washed my mouth out with a big bar of soap. She had never used that punishment on me before and never did again. I asked her to recall why she used it at that moment:

“I was just so shocked, and I was hurt. I was hurt. It just came to mind, like, there’s only one thing to do here. Now the washing the mouth out was something about saying bad words. It was…so for some reason, I went for that punishment because it felt equivalent. I think I just wanted to, like, shock you.”

My informant is my mother, a 60-year old director of communications for a non-profit in New York City. She cannot recall where she learned this folk punishment from, and does not ever remember her parents using it on her. My mother rarely if ever used corporal punishment, but as she said:

“Well, you know, we were not the strictest of parents, you know, but there was, like, certain things that, you know, we just couldn’t let you guys get away with.”

I think my mother likes this folk punishment only because it evokes this memory we can now laugh at. But I find it really interesting that she only used this folk punishment once it her life. This speaks to the way in which folklore can lie dormant in our heads and then emerge at completely unpredictable moments. There are probably hundreds of pieces of folklore that we don’t even know we know, but something will occur, and all of a sudden we’ll find ourselves performing it.

This folk punishment also has a Pavlovian effect to it. It’s completely visceral and instinctual. It doesn’t teach children anything about the disrespect of their words and actions. Rather, it forces an association into their minds between misbehaving and bodily discomfort. I imagine every time I thought of spitting in someone’s face after that moment (which I hope was not often) I remembered the taste of soap in my mouth and chose against it.