Author Archive
Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Lawyer joke

My friend and classmate Pauline told me the following joke, which she learned from her dad, who is a lawyer:

“It was so cold outside today that earlier, I saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets.”

This joke relies upon the stereotype that lawyers are greedy and corrupt, and the metonymic use of the phrase “having one’s hands in someone’s pockets” to refer to squeezing money out of someone, like a legal client. The humor of the joke may be based in a genuine belief in this stereotype for people resentful of lawyers, but in this case its humor comes from a self-aware and ironic acknowledgement of the stereotype by a lawyer who presumably does not believe in it.

Pauline says that her dad has a number of lawyer jokes in his repertoire, which he tells “any time we’re with, like, any other lawyers, or if someone’s giving him a hard time about being a lawyer.” Such jokes are pieces of occupational folklore, which may serve to bond lawyers over their common identity, or may function as self-deprecating humor performed for the entertainment of non-lawyers. Lawyer jokes are a common staple of mainstream American humor, indicating a distrust of or misanthropic feeling toward lawyers from the general public outside of the profession. Their embrace by lawyers themselves is somewhat surprising, but is representative of the ways folklore may shift meaning depending on context.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

“Get your hair on straight.”

My friend and classmate Pauline shared the following explanation of a piece of folk speech that, as far as she knows, exists only within her extended family.

“…According to my parents, like, my uncle was the first one who started saying it, but I know my parents say it too. But when we’re like, trying to leave the house–and my mom is like, famous for being terrible at leaving the house like, when we need to leave the house she’s like, ‘oh but let’s do the dishes right now’ or whatever like, always makes a big fuss about not being ready to leave–so whenever we’re about to leave the house like, my dad usually says ‘alright, get your hair on straight!’ And like that’s the, it’s not a–it’s like an idiomatic phrase. So like, it’s not like a proverb ’cause it has no greater meaning. But apparently it’s like, my uncle started saying it, and I don’t know why my uncle started saying it–he’s not like a funny guy or anything–but um, my dad says it to like make fun of the fact that like, any reason we’re not leaving the house is like, pointless. Like you don’t need to get your hair on straight ’cause that’s impossible. So it’s like, there’s literally nothing left to do, like let’s please leave the house right now.”

This piece of folk speech, although minor in size and in greater significance, is significant to Pauline because it is unique to her family and evocative of the humor she shares with her parents.

I find this phrase funny, and I think its meaning could be divined by people outside of Pauline’s family, so I wonder whether a variant of it has emerged and been used in any other contexts.

Folk Beliefs
Legends

California breaking off

My mom, who grew up in Los Angeles, recalls a folk belief from her childhood that California would break off from the US and float away:

“So when I was growing up there would be these periodic panics or rumors that on a certain day, California was gonna break off and float out into the ocean. And I remember being- it would’ve been the year that um, the Elton John song ‘Crocodile Rock’ was out because I can remember listening to that song with [my cousin] Robert–maybe 1971 or something?–and being terrified, knowing that it probably wasn’t going to happen but just having a fear in the back of my mind that maybe there was some truth to this rumor…”

I asked if she remembered where she had heard the rumor first. She said, “well that’s a good question. It certainly wasn’t in the newspaper, it wasn’t like fake news and it wouldn’t have been- we didn’t have the internet, so how did that spread? And it seemed like it was mostly kids who knew it, i mean it wasn’t- adults weren’t, y’know, propagating this rumor. So where it came from, I have no idea. That’s always fascinating to me.”

This piece of folklore falls somewhere between the genres of folk belief and legend. It concerns something frightening that could happen, as many legends do, but it is not a narrative, and is believed to be occurring in the future, rather than the past. It could thus be classified as a “folk rumor” in the same category as conspiracy theories. This folk rumor likely stemmed from the reality of the San Andreas fault and the resulting frequency of earthquakes in Southern California. It spread, particularly among kids, because it seemed plausible and because it fed off of fears about natural disaster.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Shooting guns to welcome visitors

My friend Amal is of Jordanian and Lebanese descent. She told me the following story about a tradition in the town of Fuheis, Jordan, and a chaotic culture clash resulting from it:

“My grandfather was from a wild west of Jordan, otherwise known as Fuheis. And like, so in Jordan like, at weddings- not weddings but like parties the night before the wedding; I don’t know if there’s even an equivalent in America ’cause it’s not like a bridesmaid’s, it’s not like a shower. So at the party the night before the wedding you like shoot guns in the air. And then also like, sometimes to like, welcome someone who’s coming to your town you like, or if there’s a party, you just shoot a gun in the air. And so there was this um, famous Arabic singer who was coming to do a concert in Fuheis, um, I forget his name…But um, famous Arabic singer, like really big concert, blah blah blah. And uh, he’s like introducing himself and his set and my grandfather yells and like runs up on stage and is like, ‘welcome! We’re so happy to have you in Fuheis!’ and whips out a gun. And shoots the gun in the air. And this guy has uh, has never been to Fuheis, he doesn’t know this tradition, and he is terrified and security drags my grandfather away. And uh, that’s my fun story about our traditions.”

This personal account of a tradition in practice demonstrates the ways in which local folklore can create unpleasant or funny results when placed in a context with outsiders who aren’t familiar with it. These kinds of recontextualizations result from an increasingly interconnected and officialized world in which non-institutionalized local traditions often remain.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Sickness & not wearing socks

My friend Justine is Chinese-American, and her parents are doctors who practice holistic Eastern medicine. She shared the following folk belief with me:

“Something that like, my family weirdly believes–and I’m gonna equate this to, like, Eastern medicine or like, myths in Eastern medicine–but my family hates it when I don’t wear socks because they think that if you don’t wear socks, that’s the first like, way you can get a cold. Because like, your feet–and this is true–your feet are like a good signifier of your body temperature, so like, if your feet are cold it means the rest of your body is probably gonna feel cold too. And like, if you are cold you are more susceptible to getting a cold…Also no cold drinks, because it’s like the colder your body is, the more susceptible you are to getting sick.”

Like many folk beliefs and practices in East Asian medicine, this one is not necessarily based in empirical scientific proof, but this does not mean there is no truth to it. Remedies and folk beliefs formerly dismissed as “superstitious” have often been tested and proven effective by the medical/scientific institution, and subsequently incorporated into Western medicine. This belief reflects a general practice in Eastern medicine of focusing on overall bodily wellness rather than quick cures for acute illness.

Folk speech
Tales /märchen

“Yeki bood, yeki nabood”

My friend Panteha is of Iranian descent on her dad’s side. She recalls a phrase in Farsi that her dad would always use to begin stories or fairy tales he told her as a kid.

The phrase is, in the original Farsi:
یکی بود یکی نبود

It is transliterated as “Yeki bood yeki nabood,” which roughly translates to “once there was one and once there wasn’t one.” This phrase is used in essentially the same manner in which many english speakers use “once upon a time” to begin folk narratives, particularly tales. Although these phrases have different literal translations, they serve the same purpose: to establish the fantastical or fictional nature of a folk narrative.

Folk speech
Game

“Two Dead Boys” jump rope rhyme

My mom shared the following rhyme, which she learned from her mother, with me:

“One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other. A deaf policeman heard the noise, came and killed those two dead boys.”

She says of the rhyme, “I learned it from my mom, and she described it as a jump rope rhyme…double dutch jump roping was very popular for many years in elementary schools. And my mom grew up all over the place, so I don’t know exactly where she got this from. She was born in Atlantic City but she was also raised partly in Biloxi, Mississippi and um, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So I don’t know where this came from originally but, yeah, she was born in 1928 so it would’ve been from the ’30s.”

My mom jumped rope as a child, but she didn’t use this rhyme for that purpose because it seemed “kind of ghoulish” to her. She says she had jump rope rhymes of her own, but can’t remember any of them as well as she remembers “Two Dead Boys.” I imagine that this particular rhyme stuck with my mom because it is somewhat macabre, and things that frighten or disturb us as children tend to remain in our memories. It is interesting, although not particularly surprising, to me that a piece of folklore used in children’s play would have such dark imagery. Children’s folklore often involves subject matter usually deemed inappropriate for them, but expressed and performed with coded language or, as in this case, with whimsy and humor.

For other variants on this nonsense rhyme, see the British Columbia Folklore Society’s blog entry: http://folklore.bc.ca/one-fine-day-in-the-middle-of-the-night/

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Eating fruit before bed

My friend Justine is Chinese-American, and her parents are doctors who practice holistic Eastern medicine. She shared the following folk belief with me:

“I guess like, it’s a tradition to always eat fruit before going to bed, like you have to eat fruit before you go to bed cause that’s like, it’s better for your body and like it’ll help your immune system too. But I wonder if that’s actually helping, or if it’s more like a- it’s just something that a lot of people do. And I find that that’s like, [a common belief] across all Asian, especially Eastern Asian people.”

Like many folk beliefs and practices in East Asian medicine, this one is not necessarily based in empirical scientific proof, but this does not mean there is no truth to it. Remedies and folk beliefs formerly dismissed as “superstitious” have often been tested and proven effective by the medical/scientific institution, and subsequently incorporated into Western medicine. This belief reflects a general practice in Eastern medicine of focusing on overall bodily wellness rather than quick cures for acute illness.

Folk Beliefs
Legends

El Cucuy

My friend Rudy, who is Mexican-American, shared the following description of a supernatural figure they learned about from their mom:

“El Cucuy was a monster that my mom told me was in my closet, and I had to close my door–my closet door–at night or else he would get me. And so, every single night- well I was- I would always leave my closet door open because I would forget and she’d be like, ‘el Cucuy is gonna come get you!’ She would like, slam the door shut and like, that was that. And um, I actually like- that was all that we talked about, about el Cucuy. Like that was the only interaction I had…it was very mysterious.”

Variants of a monster or ghost that hides in a child’s closet appear across various cultures and locations. Much of the folklore that children learn from their parents consists of vaguely threatening or scary legends that may or may not serve to teach children not to misbehave. For example, Rudy’s mother may have talked about el Cucuy partly to get Rudy to close the closet door and keep their bedroom neat.

A description of this figure, known alternatively as “el Coco,” can be found in the book Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices of Mexican Americans by Rafaela G. Castro (Oxford University Press, 2001) on page 57.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Duppies

Panteha’s mom is from Jamaica, and taught her many legends and folk beliefs from Jamaican folklore. The following is a description Panteha shared with me of folkloric figures called “duppies”:

“So duppies are like, they’re like spirits…so there’s like good duppies and bad duppies. So like a duppy is basically like, someone’s soul that’s still stuck on earth and has been basically just like causing trouble. And there can be like, good duppies that like, they can give you good luck or whatever. But like, obviously no one talks about that; all they do is talk about the bad duppies. And my mom used to do this like, really scary voice when she was talking about it–she was like, ‘duppies sound like this! they sound like this,’ it’s like when Danny’s doing the ‘red rum’ [in The Shining]. They’re supposed to have these crazy like, nasally voices…

You know how like uh, like you have a day where you wake up and you stub your toe and burn your tongue on coffee and like, all these small little things happen? That’s supposedly like, bad duppies just like causing shit for you. And so when that would happen like, literally eating a spoonful of salt is supposed to stop that. So like, I remember like, one specific morning when I was really young, I fell out of bed and like hurt my ankle and like whatever, like burnt my tongue and tripped andy mom was like trying to force me to eat a whole-ass spoonful of salt and I was like, “no,” like I’m not gonna do that. Um and then, ugh, what else…My mom actually didn’t tell me this cause I think she um, didn’t wanna tell me cause I was like a little kid, but I heard from one of my uncles that like, you can shame a duppy or like, scare away a duppy by like, shamelessly exposing your genitals.”

Many cultures hold a belief in malicious or irksome spirits of some kind, which cause trouble for the living but can usually be warded off with certain practices or precautions. Salt often figures prominently in magical remedies for evil spirits’ acts, across cultures. In Jamaica, as in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, West African and indigenous mystical practices coexist with Christianity. Panteha’s mom is an observant Christian, but simultaneously maintains a belief in folk beliefs like that of the duppies.

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