Author Archive
Folk speech
Proverbs

The Shrimp That Falls Asleep

Proverb: Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente.

Phonetic Translation: ka.ma.ˈɾõŋ ˈke se ˈðwɛɾ.me se lo ˈʝe.βa la ko.ˈrjɛ̃n̪.te

Translation: The shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current

Full translation: This proverb boils down to a relatively simple message. If you don’t put in work or effort, whether in daily life or in a specific situation, you risk being “swept away by the current”, or risk losing agency over your life.

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old college student. Though he was raised in the United States, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his first language is Spanish. This proverb was recited in a college dorm room, with the informant sitting across from me.

My informant heard this proverb from his parents after he waited until late at night to begin a long assignment. He likes this proverb because it stresses the importance of effort. If you don’t put in effort, you won’t get anywhere – an especially important lesson to keep in mind when one is away at college. Also, he appreciates that phonetically, the words duerme and corriente rhyme, which makes the phrase flow easily off the tongue.

Analysis: The first thing I noticed about this proverb is its similarity to one from my own culture, “You snooze, you lose”. Though my informant’s proverb itself differs significantly in terms of wording, its meaning is essentially the same – slacking off or not doing anything will ultimately result in a more difficult struggle further down the line. The similarities in meaning but differences in wording suggest that the Mexican and American proverbs arose independently from each other, despite having essentially the same message – or, in folklore terms, the two are oikotypes, local variations of a common piece of folklore.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Proverb: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Full Translation: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect essentially means: Always put your greatest effort in – that is how you will improve. If you practice perfection at every step, perfection itself is far more attainable.

Context: My informant is an eighty year old woman from a very scientifically/factually inclined Midwestern family. This performance was done over Facetime with my informant, since she lives in Seattle. Otherwise, however, it resembled a classic storytelling situation.

Background: My informant heard this proverb from her own husband, who himself learned it from colleagues in a university setting. She loves this updated take on “practice makes perfect” because it reflects her work ethic. Though she’s well into her 80s, she is constantly seeking out new challenges for herself. She likes to be her best her, and this saying helps her do that – to be the best possible person she can be, she always practices perfection, though she may not necessarily attain it.

Analysis: This is an intriguing example of a proverb changing shape to reflect differing ethical or societal standards. This phrase is interesting since it takes a very well known American proverb – “practice makes perfect” and modifies it, changing its significance with the addition of a single word. The significance immediately changes – this is no longer saying that practice itself will lead to success, but rather putting maximum effort into ones work will ensure maximum reward. I personally think it’s a really cool way to further stress the importance of work ethic. It changes a well known proverb in a very simple, yet noticeable way, so that the phrase is still easy to remember  and catchy, and inspires even greater effort in those who hear it.


 

Folk Beliefs
general

Spiders and Surveyors

Informant: This story is a bit goofy… not sure if it’s what you’re looking for.

Interviewer: Let’s hear it.

Informant: So my father, was a bit of a trickster. He worked for a time as an urban surveyor – one of the men who plot out sewer systems and those sorts of things. Mostly urban planning. Anyways… he uses this surveying tool, a sort of telescope, and these tools have to be very accurate. If they’re not, your instruments are off. So their crosshairs are very precise (pause)

Interviewer: Ok…

Informant: My father liked to trick people – so he loved this trick. While he was using this tool, he asked one of his friends how the crosshair was so precisely made. His friend… well, he had heard an explanation before, and so he began to talk about spiders. See, someone had told them that spiders, with the sort of.. Natural geometry of their webs, were able to accurately make these crosshairs. Factories would sort of… uh, train them, to make these crosshairs.

Interviewer: Did your father believe this?

Informant: (Laughs) He thought it was a bit ridiculous, but still, it’s just… just reasonable enough to pass under the radar. I’m not sure he ever believed this was true, but at the same time, he never did disprove it. He always talked about how he’d visit a factory and see the machines just to settle the matter, but I never did hear whether it was spiders or machines.

Context: My informant is an eighty year old woman from a very scientifically/factually inclined Midwestern family. This performance was done over Facetime with my informant, since she lives in Seattle. Otherwise, however, it resembled a classic storytelling situation.

Background: My informant loves this story because of her scientific background, to a part. Everyone from her family was bent on things making sense. This story, however, is stupid and preposterous, but not quite stupid enough to immediately dismiss. So, if people don’t immediately accept it, they waste a bit of time searching around before finally ending up in this limbo of knowing it’s not quite realistic, but not being able to verify it.

Analysis: This is a great example of an urban legend. This piece seems preposterous, yet it also has its own sort of logic to it that makes one consider its truthfulness – seeing as how some of the informant’ father’s acquaintances believed and spread this story. Once someone has heard it, the story is good enough to keep on passing around, and so it keeps on circulating. I personally don’t believe it, seeing as how machines can probably do the exact same thing for far cheaper, but still, spiders making the crosshairs is not completely outside of the realm of possibility.

Folk speech

Bo Tah Bo Lampa

Proverb: Bo tah bo lampa

Phonetic Translation: Boe tah boe lam pah

Translation: If you don’t chug, you have no balls

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US, but originally from Singapore. This piece of folk speech was told to me by the informant in a college dorm room.

Background: This informant is from Singapore, where the drinking age is 18. Because of this, he has gone to clubs and other places with his friends to drink. While out drinking at one of these clubs for the first time, his friends shouted this over and over while they were drinking, essentially telling each other to keep going over. He personally likes this piece of folk speech because or its origins. It did not arise in Singapore initially, but rather has roots in Cantonese bars.

Analysis: The first thing that struck me about this phrase was that, despite the informant identifying it as mainly Singaporean, its origin is in fact in Canton. Though Singapore is a mainly Malay-speaking region, this phrase has replaced other, native sayings. Furthermore, this phrase is an awesome view into how many pieces of folklore formed. In this case, Singapore and Canton share strong trade ties and relatively close geographic locations. That, coupled with the maritime nature of the two regions, meant that sailors temporarily onshore, as well as passengers, were most likely the ones to make the phrase well known. Personally, I think the phrase is crude, especially when translated to English, but still, I can see why it spread easily. Phonetically, it’s an easy and fun phrase.

Folk Beliefs
Magic

The Hantus in the Banyan Trees

Informant: There’s these things in Singapore, they’re called Hantus, they’re basically ghosts. So because Singapore was part of Malaysia at some point, a lot of our culture has to do with Malaysian culture. There’s this story about Hantus where, around Singapore, there’s a lot of these trees called Banyan Trees. These trees have huge stems, and are super wide. There are a ton of roots that hang from their canopies down.

Because of these roots, Banyan trees are very dark, especially at night. Their canopies are thick, so light can’t get through them, and the stems obscure everything else.

There’s this legend that when you go into the forest at night and you see all of these Banyan trees, you’re not supposed to shine light up into them, or like, if you have a flash, you’re not supposed to shine it into the top of the trees, and you can’t touch the hanging roots either. If you do, these ghost things, these Bantus, jump out of the trees and will “get” you.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US, but originally from Singapore. This legend was told to me by the informant in a college dorm room.

Background: The informant heard this belief from some of his friends, who also claimed to have seen the eyes of Hantus in the canopies of the Banyan trees. The informant doesn’t believe in this superstition, but he did mention that several people had gone missing among the Banyan trees around Singapore. To him, it’s simply a way to scare people and keep them from flashing lights around at the trees in the dark.

Analysis: I personally am not sure there are any supernatural forces at work. Like my informant said, this instead sounds like a common superstition, a classic superstition to make the native Banyan trees more mysterious, and also to dissuade people from harming them, in fear of such Hantus. What caught my attention was that this legend seems to be centered very specifically around Singapore, where Banyan trees are especially numerous, but it still heavily draws on elements of Malaysian superstition – Hantus. In this way, the use of both is a great symbolic representation of the shared cultural heritage between Singapore and Malaysia.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Pomlázka Celebration

Informant: On every Easter Monday it is a Czech tradition for men to create a Pomlázka, which is an approximately one meter long wooden stick. This stick is then used to whip women on the butt.

The whipping is traditionally accompanied by a song, its purpose is to cleanse the woman of diseases and they are rewarded with sweets if they are children and alcohol if they are old enough to drink. Then, in some parts of the country, it is also a tradition for women to spill or pour a bucket of cold water on men as a reaction.

The songs usually are something along the lines of “give me eggs”, referring to the overarching tradition of Easter eggs. The most commonly song is something like: “Hody, hody, doprovody, dejte vejce malovaný, nedáte-li malovaný, dejte aspoň bílý, slepička vám snese jiný”, which I believe roughly translates to: “Hey, hey, give us coloured Easter eggs, if you don’t have coloured ones, give us at least white ones, your hen will give you new ones”

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old Czech national attending school in the United States. He’s lived in Prague for most of his life, and Czech is his first language. The interview was conducted face-to-face in a college dorm room.

Background: My informant actively participates in Easter celebrations in Prague, where this tradition is widely practiced. According to him, most people find it ridiculous, but nevertheless entertaining, a view which he shares. He believes that this is an important expression of Czech culture, as this tradition dates back generations, but also thinks that it is practiced mostly for entertainment.

Analysis: This was one of the first holiday based customs I encountered while collecting elements of folklore. I was surprised that, despite occurring on Easter, the custom is actually relatively devoid of Christian symbolism, instead focusing on the egg element of the holiday. This seems to reflect a less-dominant role of religion within Czech culture, as Easter Sunday, a not unimportant day for Christians, is celebrated without the mention of Jesus or the resurrection at all. There are, however, some religious undertones, as the whipping sticks used by the men supposedly “cleanse” the women of their diseases.

Foodways
Legends
Narrative

The Origin of the Řízek

Interviewer: So you just gave me a recipe for… I’m not going to try and pronounce it. You said you also have a story about its origin?

Informant: Yeah, during some battle of the Austrian-Hungarian army in Italy, the general that led his battalion there from the army saw the locals making some sort of food where they would take a piece of meat and cover it in parmesan and fry it. He thought, “well how could I recreate this for our emperor when we don’t have parmesan back home?” So, when he got back from the war, he had the chef at the royal palace recreate the recipe and that’s how this recipe came about

Interviewer: I assume the general was Czech?

Informant: Yeah, yeah.

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old Czech national attending school in the United States. He’s lived in Prague for most of his life, and Czech is his first language. The interview was conducted face-to-face in a college dorm room.

Background: My informant probably learned this story from his grandmother. He remembers it because Řízek is a traditional food that every Czech person knows how to make. He places great importance on this story because it disputes the Austrian and Hungarian claims to Řízek, a food widely considered by the Czech population as their national dish.

Analysis: I personally find this legend very believable. Řízek the food closely resembles chicken parmesan from Italy, and the story itself is quite believable from a historical sense. The Austro-Hungarian army was in Italy, and a general would conceivably had seen the traditional Italian dish prepared. From a more objective perspective, this story legend is also interesting because, despite being a Czech legend, it refers to a time period before the Czech people had an actual sovereign nation, but is still used to reinforce the claims of the Czech people on Řízek.

Legends
Narrative

Legend of the White Lighter

 

Informant: You know those groups of musicians that die before the age of 24?

Interviewer: Sure

Informant: I think there’s like one person who died with like the story of using a white lighter so there’s always that curse… you know, don’t use that white lighter. It’s cursed. Something bad is going to happen, it’s bad luck. Literally, like, smoking with my friends, one of them, we were smoking at his house – he thought his parents weren’t going to be there for a while. We were like “oh man, only lighter we have is this white lighter, let’s use that” We use it and his parents come back wayy earlier than expected and were like “oh we left something here” and saw us in the middle of our smoke session outside.

Interviewer: Any others?

Informant: One of my friends was looking in his car for a lighter and the only one in his car was a white one in the glovebox or whatever. I guess this house or parking lot he was at called the cops and they came up and arrested him. Pretty sure he ended up with a possession charge.

Interviewer: Oh wow…

Informant: Yeah man stay away from those white lighters.

Context: My informant is a twenty one year old from a midwestern town bordering a legal marijuana state and an illegal marijuana state. This story was told while sitting around a table in a college dorm common room – my informant sat across from me and told me his story in person.

Background: My informant knows this story because it’s been passed between nearly everyone he knows who smokes – white lighters are never good luck. To him, it simply means to never use a white lighter – he admitted after our interview that he still makes a point of avoiding white lighters.

Analysis: The Story of the White Lighter is a classic example of an urban legend. Though my informant cannot necessarily verify its authenticity, his story nonetheless takes place in recent history. Interestingly, we can see here the actual evolution of the story. Not only does the interviewee sum up the general origin of the story and the gist of it, he also adds his own experience to it – one in which he himself was also cursed by the white lighter, thus adding further legitimacy to the story. Anyone who has a bad experience with a white lighter can add their own run-in with its curse to the story relatively easily, thus allowing the legend to more easily spread.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Jinxing

Interviewer: Got any Czech traditions or beliefs you could tell me about?

Informant: Sure, yeah there are some cool ones. So, we have one called “Jinxing”. Basically, when somebody predicts something positive about the future, anyone in the room should knock on an object made out of wood, in order for it to come true.

There’s also another variation for it. Same sort of.. Requirements for the tradition, but instead of knocking on something wood, you have to find something hollow and knock on it

Interviewer: Does anything happen if you don’t knock on an object?

Informant: If you don’t knock on an object, then that prediction won’t happen. Like, the exact opposite, worst case scenario would occur.

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old Czech national attending school in the United States. He’s lived in Prague for most of his life, and Czech is his first language. The interview was conducted face-to-face in a college dorm room.

Background: My informant, though he claims himself not to be superstitious, did profess that he did knock, since to do otherwise would be to “jinx” the prediction. He learned of the belief from his friends while living in Prague, and said that though he did not necessarily share this belief entirely, he was still afraid of “Jinxing” a prediction. According to him, if anyone were to not knock on an object, they would be accused if anything went wrong in the future.

Analysis: This belief is reminiscent of a similar belief held in the Northwestern United States that I’ve encountered, though I’m unsure how widespread of a phenomenon it is. In the US, “Jinxing” simply means that if you second-guess someone or say your misgivings about an action or event out loud, whatever you worried about will actually come true. This seems to be tied to some overarching belief in fate, especially as a malicious, or at least unforgiving force. Though this understanding of faith seems to be malleable, it can be constrained – in this case, when one does not voice their concerns, the belief is that fate will turn a blind eye. The fact that this understanding of fate is present in both the US and Czech may suggest a sharing of cultural attributes, perhaps through channels of immigration.

Customs

Puff Puff Pass

Informant: My next thing is a tradition.

Interviewer: Sure..

Informant: Ok… so, this is more of a tradition in smoking. I was taught it by my friend, he was taught it by his friend, who was taught it by his friend… that sorta chain goes on and on. Everyone knows it, and if you don’t know it, someone you’re chilling with will know it and tell you.

Interviewer: Cool.

Informant: Yeah.. so, basically, when you’re smoking with your homies, you want to, like, make sure everyone is having a good time, right? Don’t want a smoke hog. So somewhere along the line, probably years and years ago at this point, some dude comes up with this idea,, “Puff puff pass”. Basically, you to take two hits of the “j” or bong or pipe or whatever, and then pass it along. Make sure everyone gets a chance. As soon as someone says puff puff pass, everyone in the circle starts doing it.

Interviewer: What happens when everyone has smoked?

Informant: Keep passing. It goes around and around till it’s done.

Context: My informant is a twenty one year old from a midwestern town bordering a legal marijuana state and an illegal marijuana state. This story was told while sitting around a table in a college dorm common room – my informant sat across from me and told me his story in person.

Background: The informant likes this tradition because it perpetuates a culture of sharing – everyone is taken care of in a smoke circle, to the point where a common tradition has arisen to allow greater sharing within these groups.

Analysis: Puff Puff Pass is a really cool example of the power of oral tradition and community thought. Like my informant described, the tradition arose from those a mutual want within the smoker community for a way to more easily and fairly share smokables amongst themselves. Furthermore, the tradition, like any other piece of folklore, was spread by word of mouth – which is the most impressive part of it to me, as it is a remarkably well recognized custom within the community of smokers. Everyone learns Puff-Puff-Pass from someone else at some point or another.

 

Annotation: To see another example of Puff-Puff-Pass, see this source:

Crane, Travis. “Puff Puff Pass: The Etiquette of the Smoke Circle.” My 420 Tours, My 420 Tours, 19 Dec. 2017, my420tours.com/puff-puff-pass/.

Though this source doesn’t differ in its interpretation of the puff puff pass tradition, it does stress the importance of equality within the circle – everyone is supposed to smoke an equal amount. Again, it’s really interesting to see how this tradition of parity has become a de facto law within the smoking community.


[geolocation]