Author Archives: Lily Mathison

Folk Etymology – Arizona

“When Pancho Villa, that is when American troops were chasing Pancho Villa across the border in a, in a series of skirmishes the Mexicans heard the Americans singing the song ‘Green grows the lilacs’ which was a popular st-st-st uh, song turn of the century. And so what the Mexicans heard was not ‘Green Grows the lilacs’ but they heard green – gringos. They said it really fast, ‘gringos’. So that’s what I, where I heard that that came from, was gringos.”

The informant is a 67-year-old caregiver residing in Whittier, California. He has divided most of his life between California, Iowa, and Colorado but lived in Phoenix, Arizona for a few years.

The informant said he heard it when he lived in Phoenix back in the 50’s when he was in late elementary school. He said it was closer to Mexico then (perhaps meaning that he was closer to Mexico then). The context that this folk etymology came up was my sister was showing pictures of her honeymoon in the Mexican Riviera and she mentioned that she felt like a gringo when she was down there as she didn’t speak any Spanish. We got to talking about the difference between the terms ‘gringo’ and “americano’ and the informant rattled off this little tidbit. He had told us this etymology before and with gusto, which likely indicates that he believes it is true.

The informant is a bit of an encyclopedia of random knowledge that he likes to spout off, and this etymology is likely one of those facts. I personally had believed the informant for many years until I asked him where he learned it and if he had corroborated this story. He learned it from someone else and hadn’t cross-referenced for veracity. I personally think it’s interesting how sure he is that his story is true. I think it’s interesting that this story would make the term seem fairly harmless. It’s just a linguistic mess up – so when someone calls another a gringo it’s just a local term for someone. And yet I have spoken to a few Spanish-speaking people, one in particular who was Dominican, who said she wouldn’t call her friends gringos – so apparently the term has negative connotations, yet this etymology makes to reference to the negativity surrounding the word.

Chili Peppers, Folk Medicine – Mexican

“I used to get sick at lot, like in high school with like, ah, chest congestion and all that lovely stuff. ‘Cause it’s, I guess, cold in the East Coast. So, uh, and I, and my parents would tell me, ‘oh, you should just eat chili peppers’ like red chili peppers ’cause their spicy.’ And you know my mother would always say, ‘So you father’s mother’ – so I guess my grandmother, ah, ‘she never never used to get sick ’cause she would always eat chili peppers.’ You know, and she said, “you know that’s the good thing about Mexican people they would eat all these chili peppers so they would never get colds and stuff like that.’ So, I don’t know why my mother would say that because my mother’s not Mexican, my Dad is. So he would say the same thing but my mother, being my mother, would really try to push that. I think she heard that from my Dad and just took off from it.”

The informant is from Arlington, VA. She said that she thought the concept of eating chili peppers to keep away a cold or to fight a cold made sense. The chili peppers likely kill the germs (i.e. a cold) and clean out the system. Though she has never tried it, she said it might work.

I think her analysis of why her Slovenian mother and not her father repeated this bit of folklore was telling. It seemed her mother may have had a more maternal instinct for trying to make sure her children were healthy and so grasped at this as a chance to do just that. She also may have seen this bit of folklore as a way to control something that was more than likely a great deal out of her control – that her daughter seemed to have a predisposition to getting colds in a cold climate. It may have relieved her that there was some way to help her daughter out there. I think it is also telling that Andrea has never tried this – that says to me that her Mom may have been trying to relieve some anxiety rather than truly cutting up some chili’s and putting them on a plate for her daughter. The informant’s conclusion that it makes sense that it would work may come from her theoretical biology knowledge as learned from her Neuroscience major.

Chili Peppers

Animation Christmas Tradition/Pinata/Effigy – American

“We in, at my animation school every year we decide to – we make a piñata based on a recent…so Polar Express made it one year. We made a piñata of Tom Hanks in Polar Express and uh, we were gonna beat the crap out of it but unfortunately they made it out of duct tape so…boy it was a long, everybody got a swing. I thought they – then ended up having to tear it down and stomp on it and then it – ah, why duct tape! It’s like that’s not even fun! Actually no, it was fun. But I’ll tell you what it took us an hour then we were like something’s wrong. [Laughs.] This is, this is a – and we had a metal bat. We’re like, okay, something is up about this piñata. This piñata is really resilient! Okay. So finally we tore enough away that we realized, I was like, “Who made it out of duct tape!? What the heck!?” “Well, I don’t know we wanted to make sure that everybody – ” because the previous year, you know it was like bam bam done. [Makes grumbling noises.]”

The informant is a 25-year-old Story Board Artist and animator who works in television. She is originally from Denver, Colorado and moved to Los Angeles for college and work.

This particular incident took place during the California Institute of the Art’s (CalArts) Character Animation department Christmas party. Before describing this installment of the beating-of-the-animation-pinata tradition she told me she was unhappy when Polar Express came out because “It was gross, because the people didn’t move and animators are starving thanks to motion capture.” The informant, is an animator, though “not a starving one” but she does “have starving friends thanks to motion capture.”  She also was opposed to motion capture on a technical level:

“The effect is similar to mascots walking around Disneyland with giant hats. They move natural but it doesn’t make any sense with the character shape because you have to – if the character has a giant head and is a penguin or something they should not move like a human being! But they do and motion capture looks really gross.”

She then repeated that “animators are starving” because of motion capture.

The year before the pinata was “the bee from Bee Movie,” though it was not motion capture it was just a bad silly movie. “Besides everyone likes killing bees. They’re an endangered species.” “You cannot hit bees in real life so we make piñata bees,” the informant told me.

I think this is pretty clearly a cathartic tradition. The animators are frustrated that they are getting put out of the job by this, as they consider it, second rate technology. They cannot take any direct action against the inventor and users of motion capture, but they can make a pinata that represents all of that and beat it with a metal bat.

I would argue that this example of a holiday tradition is an interesting twist on the practice of beating or burning effigies of political figures in order to protest their policies or actions. The same day the informant was telling me about her Polar Express pinata, protesters in Pakistan were burning an effigy of American President Barack Obama as well as the American flag to express their anger regarding the recent US attacks on tribal Pakistani areas (Rodriguez). The anger toward the figure-in-effigy in both cases is clearly there. The bitterness in the informant’s voice as she talked about her friends that couldn’t get a job because of the widespread use of motion capture tells us that her mental state in beating the Polar Express pinata was more akin to that of the Pakistani protesters than a child having fun at a birthday party. Seen in this light, this tradition is surprisingly political.

Works Cited:

Rodriguez, Alex. “U.S. drone attack kills 25 in Pakistan.” Los Angeles Times 23 April 2011. Accessed online:,0,5711991.story?track=rss.

‘Potato Slop’ – North Carolina

“This is a recipe that I learned from my mother. Ah, and we call it ‘potato slop’ even though outside of our family it would probably be called shepard’s pie. But basically what you do is you take a sauce pan and you brown up some ground beef and drain out the oil. And then you dice some onions and add them in. And then once you have the onions and the meat you fill the pan with water – almost to the very brim. And then you put really really thinly sliced potatoes in it – and they have to be thinly sliced so they cook quickly. And then you just put a lid on it and simmer it until the potatoes are kinda squooshy and then you take the lid off and let the water boil off. And then you have this kind of uh, potato, onion, ground beef mush. It sounds really unappetizing but then you stir in this taco seasoning and sometimes peas or corn if you feel like you need vegetables.”

The informant is a 20-year-old Theatre student at the University of Southern California. She grew up in North Carolina.

It was a dish the informant would eat on a day when her mother didn’t have a lot of work as it takes some time to make it. She thinks this recipe is delicious and she is fairly good at making it. If she’s cooking with friends or is trying to impress someone with her cooking this is her go-to recipe, unless they’ve already had it.

I think the Mexican influence is interesting, as North Carolina is not all that close to Mexico and yet this recipe has taco seasoning. This seems to evidence that the Mexican culinary traditions are becoming a standard part of American cooking. I would note that this is contrary to what assimilation theory would predict as this evidences Americans – as natives of the host country – incorporating Mexican traditions into their own. I would not say that this necessarily evidences a holistic acceptance of Mexican immigrants, certainly this shows that Mexican food is becoming increasingly thought of as American.

Folksong – North Carolina

‘The River, she is flowing, flowing and growing

The River, she is flowing back to the sea.

Oh, Mother carry me – a child I will always be.

Oh, Mother carry me, back to the sea.

Back to the sea.”

The informant learned this song at a summer camp called the Green River Preserve in North Carolina. It was a song that they would sing on the bus on the way to a hiking site or sometimes in the evening around the camp fire. It was “theoretically a Native American song” though she wasn’t sure about that. She said that if her friends ask her to sing a song and she’s not warmed up she would sing this song because “it’s an easy song and it sounds nice”. She said it was “rather haunting and almost relaxing.”

I think it makes sense that this folk song was a song from a summer camp, as they are typically for children and the line, “Oh, Mother carry me – a child I will always be” is clearly relevant for children. For a young adult to be singing this song also makes sense as being college aged is this interesting time, that some refer to as emerging adulthood, where one is in a liminal stage between adulthood and childhood and this song expresses a resistance to growing up. I also think it is particularly suited to a young woman who moved across the country from North Carolina to Los Angeles to miss her home state and the land there. The East Coast actually has rivers that are not paved in concrete and so an organic notion of a river would likely remind the informant of her home, as this song clearly references as the river in it is “flowing and growing back to the sea.” The folkness of the song, in that it seems to be a song written by the people of her home state would also suggest a certain nostalgia is at play here.

Folk Song, CN

Proverb – Finnish

“Menan pois medä on petitu.”

“Let’s go, we’ve been cheated.”

“Let’s get out of here, we’ve been cheated.”

The informant is a 25-year-old insurance broker who grew up in Ohio and the Los Angeles region. His father is Finnish and his mother is a third generation Swedish American.

The informant told me, “You say that whenever you leave a restaurant or a store or anything like that.” He said it’s like a joke, one doesn’t say it when one is upset that the place over charged one, one says it walking out of any store or restaurant. The informant learned this saying from his father who moved from Finland to the United States from Finland during his college years and had a family here in the States. The informant said that he uses this saying much more frequently than other Finnish sayings – like the Finnish saying about the Finnish Politician Putkinen.

I think it makes sense that the informant uses this saying frequently here in America because it translates well. There’s nothing about it that is uniquely Finnish. Both in Finland and in the United States it’s easy for one to walk out of a decently priced restaurant and feel like one spent more money than one meant to or to not realize how much money one has spent. It is possible that this phrase might be a slight criticism of consumerism – in that it’s easy to feel cheated walking out of a store. In that there isn’t a type of store or restaurant that is targeted as the “cheating” kind it could be said that the system of buying and selling of goods is more the object of criticism in this proverb – however tacitly that might be expressed.

We’ve been cheated (only proverb)

Proverb – Finnish

“Hetkinen sano Putkinen.”

“Wait says Putkinen.”

“Pukinen says, let’s wait a little bit.”

The informant is a 25-year-old insurance broker who grew up in Ohio and the Los Angeles region. His father is Finnish and his mother is a third generation Swedish American.

Putkinen was a politician “who was always slowing down the process”. It’s a saying to “just tell someone to wait” it’s like Putkinen says that we just need to keep waiting and not doing anything. He said it’s, “light-heartedly poking fun at this past governor guy”. One would use this proverb when a couple people were going to go somewhere and one of them wa like, “I’m not ready to go yet” they would say “Hetkinen sano Putkinen.” Like relax. The informant says he rarely ever says that it’s mainly his dad who says that, who moved to the United States from Finland when he was in college. The informant was born in the United States.

I think it makes sense that a Finnish American man who was born in the states wouldn’t have as much connection to this saying as his father would, who lived in Finland and has more of a personal connection to Finnish politics. It also makes sense that the informant wouldn’t want to allude to a politician that people in the United States likely wouldn’t know anything about, Americans would likely wonder why we should care that Putkinen says wait.


Angel Memorate – Georgia, U.S.A

“I was really young. I was, it was in Georgia. My Mom and my Dad were married at the time. My mom was at work, my Dad and my brothers were in the house sleeping. I could sleep so I – like taking a nap, it was midday I went out into our backyard and started swinging on the swings. I was facing away from the house. I was facing, like this hill that our backyard faced. And I was just swinging, running around, doing kids’ stuff and I suddenly heard my Mom’s voice calling my name – or what sounded like my Mom’s voice. It was a female voice. I turned around, and just as I turn around smoke starts coming out of the kitchen. Um, so I go running in there – the kitchen window, sorry the kitchen window. So I go running into the house and the – the kitchen’s on fire! And my Dad and my brothers were also so they had no idea. So I ran in there and I woke up my dad and my dad went and extinguished the fire and actually burned his hand in the process. And um, my Mom wasn’t home. So the voice that I heard, it was unexplained. It was a female voice that called my name and draw my attention to the fire as it began. So early on, and if it had been any later it might not have been able to be extinguished. And my family was inside asleep so who knows, you know, how bad it could have been.”

The informant is a 26-year-old cinematographer who grew up as a military brat moving every couple of years, before coming to Los Angeles, California for college and to work in the motion picture industry. He is the oldest of three boys and was recently married.

When asked what he thought it was the informant said, “I think it was an angel. I mean it was an angel or, or something along that line.” What had caused the fire initially was that there was a pizza box on the stove and his little brother had accidentally turned the stove on while climbing up on the counter to get something out of the cabinet. He said “There was no female that I knew that was there” and his Mom “didn’t even know about the fire until she came home.” He said “it was definitely a guardian angel or something.” He told me, “I didn’t know what [the voice] was until later on because I never, I wasn’t Christian or anything until my teens and then when I was saved then I realized, ‘Oh, I wonder if that’s what it was.’ To him what was significant was that his family was saved from great harm due to him hearing this voice. The informant says he usually tells this story whenever he is talking about miracles or God’s goodness, he called it a “praise report”.

I can see why one might be confused as to what to label this strange voice as. It didn’t move anything around like one might expect a ghost to do and he didn’t see the translucent form of a woman like we hear in many stories about ghosts. But most significantly what it did was good – it likely saved his family’s life. Stories about ghosts saving someone’s life are not characteristic. It is clearly a situation where the informant was trying to categorize something outside of scientific explanation or normal experience. As he says, when he heard an explanation that made sense of an experience, he integrated that explanation into his narrative. It happened to be that that explanation was of guardian angels in Christianity. Perhaps had he moved to Ireland and learned about friendly fairies (sí) he may have integrated this explanation into his memory. The key here is how closely the idea of guardian angels explained his unexplainable experience. In that he said it was “definitely” an angel says how well the concept makes sense in his mind.

Wood Carvings – Iowa

“He was in a installing a gas, a-a- gas in a basement, or hot water heater and he didn’t know it but it was, the pilot light was still on – he light a match and the explosion was pretty bad. He was burned all over and one hand was burned real bad. But he started to carve things to get his hand flexible and those are from him.”

Why would it help his hands when asked why he thought it would help his hands she answered: “It flexed it, it gave his hand exercise…maybe somebody said if you exercise your hand it will be more usable and it was. Originally it was kinda like a claw [she shows me her hand in a clenched-claw shape] it was really bad.”

The informant as well as her father were born in rural Iowa and are of Czech decent – more specifically Bohemian decent. The informant is a 93-year-old housewife who has lived in the Los Angeles area since the 1950’s.

When asked who told him that whittling would help his hands grow in dexterity the informant didn’t know. In fact, I asked several members of the family and no one knew. The informant and others in the family reacted defensively when I asked, answering right away that it did indeed help him. When I asked where he got the designs from the informant said that she thought he just got them out of his head.

Whittling is a common American pastime, especially around the 1920’s and 30’s (Reynolds 80). This was the era that the Czech American folk artist was whittling away, starting with his wife’s broom (much to her dismay). This carving of whatever piece of wood could be found was observed also in a Folk Art Museum in New York state (Rita 19). As far as the folk remedy for a severely disabled hand, the origins of this are less clear. C.J Reynolds, D.D.S in a Popular Science article from April 1924 mentions that whittling helped with improving his “manual dexterity” so key to his profession as a dentist (80). The pieces picture above actually somewhat resemble some of those picture in the article. Something particularly striking about the pieces is their clear use of geographic shapes such as squares and triangles. After doing some research I found that the dominant use of these shapes are similar to those used in chip-carved spoons found in Eastern Europe – which were also carved with a simple knife (Sentance and Sentance, 118). These spoons, however only took small chips of the wood out, leaving the surface nearly flat still while the angles in the above pieces are far more three dimensional. This three dimensional quality more resembles the totem poles made by Native Americans and the walking sticks made by African Americans in the south( Sentance and Sentance, 24-25; Burrison, 70). In this way these pieces can be seen as a mixture of both old world and new world influences.

On another level, these wooden carvings are entering our family as cherished folk objects whose story has been passed down four generations now. My grandmother offered each of her over a dozen grandchildren a few of the more than 50 that she has left. It is almost a mark of family identity that we know that our Czech grandfather made them. The story itself could perhaps be seen as a family member triumphing in the face of adversity by making something beautiful in order to counteract this terrible explosion that happened.

Burrison, John A. Shaping Traditions: Folk Arts in a Changing South. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000. 70.

Reif, Rita. (1975, April 12). Antiques: wood carving: 139 ‘varied’ findings in new york state on view at folk art museum. New York Times, p. 19.

Reynolds, C.J., D.D.S. “Fun and Profit in My Jack-Knife.” Popular Science. April 1924, 80.

Sentance, Bryan, and Polly Sentance. Craft Traditions of the World: Locally Made, Globally Inspiring. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2009. 118-119. Print.

Lawyer Joke – American

“So this lawyer is cross-examining this doctor and he says, ‘Doctor, so you’re the one who did the autopsy.’

“And he said, ‘Yes.’

“And he’s like, ‘Well where was the victim when you did the autopsy report?’

“He’s like, ‘On the table.’

“‘Well, what were you looking at particularly?’

“He’s like, ‘The brain. The brain was, you know out of the victim’s head on my table.’

“And he said, ‘Oh, okay. So the victim was dead.’

“‘Yes, there was no way he could be anywhere else. Well I suppose he could be practicing law somewhere else, but other than that, probably dead.'”

Friend showed it to her online. The informant is a Pre-Law student and she was actually accepted into a Law school for the coming year. This joke came up after we had talked about her recent acceptance to a Law school and when we started talking about jokes. She later went and looked up lots of other jokes about lawyers and went through them laughing hysterically. When she told the joke she told it at a pretty speedy pace, somewhat characteristic of someone who has to make detailed verbal reports often. There was not a lot of emotional changes in her voice as she told the joke – it was a fairly dry account. The informant said the that the joke was funny to her because it reminded her of some people that she knew, most likely from her years of participating in Mock Trial.

The informant has, in fact, been on Mock Trial since her freshman year and has know about the inner workings of law for a long time, which meant that she understood the allusions and situational comedy in lawyer jokes very intimately. I in no way doubt that she was thinking about someone she knew as she laughed, but she didn’t initially tell me she knew someone like the lawyer in the joke when she told me that joke. In this way, the joke was somewhat self-disparaging. This may be a case where a person has taken up an occupational stereotype in order to take some of the sting out of it, or to say somehow, “Hey, I can see this joke and I can laugh about it – I’m not some straight-laced, condescending lawyer like the lawyer in this joke.”