Author Archive
folk metaphor
Folk speech

Bengali Insult

My informant is the daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh, and a close friend of mine. She has often told me of the unique Bengali insults and phrases that her family would use with each other. Here is a notable example:

আপনি একটি গাভী ডিম ডাল মাথা হয়

Āpani ēkaṭi gābhī ḍima ḍāla māthā haẏa

Literal translation: “You are a cow’s egg vegetable head”

My informant expressed to me that she was unsure if it was a widely used Bengali phrase, and it would be difficult to find out with a simple google search, but she assured me that most everyone in her extended family uses this phrase. It simply means to refer to someone who is insignificant or idiotic.

I might classify this phrase as a “surrealist insult”, as it seems to be a string of words tied together with little meaning outside of simple degradation.

Legends

Haunted Local Movie Theater

My informant comes from a very interesting small town in Oregon, and she told me about a local movie theater that just about everyone in her town knows is definitely haunted. The theater itself, like most things from my informant’s hometown, has a bizarre origin.

The Palace Theater in Silverton, Oregon was created by a previous mayor (interestingly, this person was the first transgender mayor in the United States. This has less to do with the theater being haunted and more to do with the fact that it is really odd that this small country town would have accomplished such a progressive milestone). The theater burned down years ago due to a fire started by an unknown cause. It was eventually rebuilt, but now the residents of Silverton believe it to be haunted.

My informant gave me a memorate from her friend who worked at this movie theater. Supposedly, one night when she was closing up, she heard a young girl asking for help despite the fact that nobody else was in the building. On another occasion, a light shattered right when my informant’s friend walked directly underneath it.

Whether or not one truly believes in the existence of ghosts, it is worth noting that the residents of the town seemingly all have their own supernatural experiences with the Palace Theater.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Purim

My informant is Jewish on her father’s side of the family, and celebrated Jewish holidays for the majority of her childhood. She continues to do so now, just not as frequently. She told me about the Jewish holiday Purim, and recalled to the best of her ability its significance and customs.

The holiday Purim is based on the story of an evil man named Haman who wore a triangular hat. The traditional food at Purim, a triangular cookie called Hamantashen, is representative of his hat. People gather together, usually at their local temple, and tell the story of the evil Haman who was defeated at the hands of a brave hero. Whenever Haman’s name is mentioned during the story, the audience boos and spins noisemakers.

Another key element of Purim is that everyone dresses up in wild costumes, which is why some people refer to it as “Jewish Halloween”. However, there is less of a focus on monster-based costumes and more of a communal understanding that costumes are meant to be clever or amusing.

I find it interesting that Purim is such a fun and colorful holiday, yet it is so unappreciated and underrepresented in mainstream American (predominantly Christian) society.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

White Nail Markings in Bangladesh

My informant is the daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh. She told me about a folk belief from when her mother was a teenage girl in her home country.

Occasionally, one will find small white marks on their nails. According to this folk belief, this mark appearing on a girl’s nail means that she will receive a new dress. This has particular significance around the Muslim holiday of Eid, where it is customary to wear many new outfits when visiting different relatives. This is also significant in Bangladesh because there is more widespread poverty and new dresses are more difficult to come by. Because of these reasons, young girls in my informant’s mother’s neighborhood would become ecstatic when they discovered white markings on their nails.

This is interesting to think about when learning of the scientific reasoning behind these white markings, because all they indicate is that there was previous injury to the nail bed. However, folk beliefs are often used to explain things that are not widely understood, and most people are not aware of the true meaning of these marks.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Ghost Light

My informant’s mother is heavily involved in local professional theater, and my informant spent a great deal of time from a young age in theater communities. She shared with me the concept of a “ghost light”.

Essentially, there is a superstition that a light must be on in the theater at all times, otherwise the darkness will attract ghosts. Therefore, there will usually be a solitary light fixture set up on the stage when all people are absent. This is known as the “ghost light” because its purpose is to scare away any ghosts that might be drawn to the theater.

I am curious as to how ghosts are more attracted to theaters than other establishments. I am also fascinated by the fact that there is so much folk superstition surrounding theaters (such as the infamous issue of “The Scottish Play”).

Customs
Earth cycle
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vishu

My informant is a young Indian-American woman who takes great pride in her cultural customs and retains a strong connection to and knowledge of these practices. She told me about a practice known as Vishu, a New Year’s celebration specific to Kerala (but different variations are practiced in other regions).

The new year in Kerala is the day of the spring equinox. The preparations for Vishu are performed by the head woman/matriarch of the family, usually the grandmother or mother. She goes and makes an arrangement in the puja (prayer) room of the house, which is where a shrine usually is located. A core part of this arrangement is a metal mirror. Other components include fruits (specifically jackfruit, mangoes, and an open coconut as these are native Indian fruits) to signify a bountiful harvest, a little bit of money, and uncooked shelled rice.

The god in the shrine tends to be either Vishnu or Krishna, but sometimes they can be the regional South Indian deity Ayyappa. The ceremonial plate that holds all of the puja items is made of tin and is very flat with raised sides. There is also a lamp, flowers, vermillion (kumkum) for bindis, and turmeric which is also applied to the neck and forehead.

After the preparation is complete, the woman who prepared it will sleep overnight in the puja room, so that the arrangement is the first thing that she sees when she wakes up. There is a specific time frame that she is supposed to wake up between, as it is auspicious. My informant had trouble remembering the exact times, but she believed the time frame was between 3 or 4 and 6 am. After she awakes, she will pray at the shrine. Then, she goes around the house and wakes up each family member one by one, blindfolding each family member and leading them to the puja room so that the arrangement is also the first thing that they see.

In Malayalam, “vishukani” essentially means “the first thing that you see”. My informant told me that Vishu has a distinctly calmer and more laid-back tone than most other Indian holidays, focusing on being happy with family rather than loud community celebrations. Vishu is also more of an astrological than religious holiday, as it centers around the spring equinox rather than a specific Hindu date.  Other customs surrounding Vishu are the practice of wearing new clothes, occasionally giving money to the children, and popping small firecrackers. Also, there is a traditional meal that is supposed to have every kind of flavor (ie. sweet, sour, bitter, etc.). Sometimes there is bitter mango, or this one sweet that has coconut milk and rice flour.

I love the idea of purposefully setting up an elaborate and auspicious arrangement so that you can begin the new year with a vision of beauty and prosperity.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Helping Hand Proverb

My informant comes from a family that has lived in rural Georgia (the US state, not the Eurasian country) for many generations. She told me that this proverb was often spoken by her father’s grandmother, who raised my informant’s father for a while during his childhood.

“The helping hand is at the end of your own arm”

This proverb stresses self-reliance and independence, and I noticed a similarity with another common proverb “God helps those who help themselves”. This proverb must have resonated with my informant’s family background of rural farmers who had to practice self-reliance in order to survive in a post-war time period and severe economic recession.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Vietnamese Superstition

My informant is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She frequently visited Vietnam during her childhood, and told me about this superstition that her mother warned her about.

One time as a child, my informant was sleeping in the same bed as her parents and brother, and decided to sleep in the reverse position on the bed; with her feet near the pillow and her head near the foot of the bed. Her mother refused to let her sleep this way, and told her that if she slept in that position, that demons would grab her and take her away in her sleep.

I have noticed that this is a belief in other Asian countries as well, and I find it interesting that there is a connection between sleeping in an unusual way and supernatural vulnerability.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Great Depression Proverb

My informant’s mother was raised in the rural American south during the Great Depression. She learned this expression from her mother, as it was a popular phrase at the time.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”

This proverb essentially teaches about intense resourcefulness in a time of harsh economic recession. It stresses the idea that items should not be thrown away until they are absolutely useless, and not to hold onto things that are not practical. It provides a logical strategy for an emotionally taxing time in American history.

Game

Hull Gull

My informant is from a family that lived in rural Georgia (the US state, not the Eurasian country) for many generations. She learned of this game from her mother, and later played it with her own children. It’s known colloquially as “Hull Gull”, and it is a guessing game. This is the variation that my informant is familiar with:

Someone holds a few objects in each hand, usually candy. They close their hands into fists and hold them out to another person, the guesser. They say “Hull Gull, hands full” and the guesser has to choose a hand and guess how many objects are in that hand. If they are correct, they receive whatever is in that hand. If they are incorrect, the other player (the one holding the objects) gets to keep whatever was in their hands.

This game is exciting to play because one has the prospect of earning candy or other trinkets, but the possibility of failure keeps it exciting. Further research indicates that it was first publicly shown in 1961 on the Ed Sullivan show, but it could potentially have roots further back. I am also unsure whether or not this is a specifically southern American game, but this is the only context that I have ever heard of it.

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