Author Archives: Claire Nickerson

Proverb – Irish

The informant learned the following proverb from his father:

“Most wind happens around the trees.”

According to him, the proverb refers to the tendency of people to gossip when they gather in small groups. It is generally performed when the speaker wants to warn the listener not to talk too much, such as when the listener is about to leave to socialize with friends. The informant seldom uses the proverb because he disagrees with it—he thinks that there is nothing wrong with a little gossip among friends.

Ireland has very few trees now that its residents have cleared so many to make way for farms, but the nation is very windy regardless, so clearly the proverb is not literal. It seems likely to me that the proverb was brought to Ireland from another nation-state where there are more trees.

Collector’s Information:

Name: Claire Nickerson

Age: 20

Address: 920 W 37th Place #1303A, Los Angeles, CA 90089

Onomastic – Massachusetts

The informant presented me with the following account of an onomastic name for a statue at her high school:

“This is about the penis statue at Phillips Academy Andover. Um, I did not name it that—I just wanna say that first of all—I didn’t even start calling it that until I almost left, even though I had been there. Essentially it was this statue that . . . it looks, it looks like . . . yeah, it’s pretty—it looks like a penis! But its, um, its appropriate name is the Bicentennial Statue, and it’s, um, it was actually to c—um, I guess, sculpted to commemorate the combination of, of I guess Phillips Academy with, um, Abbot Academy down the street. Um, Phillips academy was at the time an all male school, and, um, Abbot Academy was an all-female school. Um, and then they combined in 1978, I’m pretty sure.”

She says of the statue’s epithet, “Um, it was kind of just used all the time, like, ‘Oh, I’ll meet you by the penis statue,’ or just—that’s what it’s called, no one called it the Bicentennial statue.”

When asked when she would call the statue by its onomastic name, the informant said, “I wouldn’t, generally? Other people would just—um, in general you try not to, um, tell that to, um, people who are visiting the school and are prospective students, you kinda just . . . you call it that to other students. You might mention it to a teacher, but that’s a little more—what? What’s it called? I, I wouldn’t, personally, but some people are a little more loose with that kinda thing?”

The informant doesn’t entirely approve of the statue’s onomastic name: “At first I just thought it was really stupid and immature, and, um, kind of as the years went on I started realizing—first of all I figured out which statue they were actually talking about. And when I actually saw it, I was like, ‘Okay. I guess I could see that.’ But like, it’s just really curious to me, like, why . . .”

There’s a kind of poetic justice in the marriage of a girls’ school to a boys’ school being celebrated with a statue that looks like an erect penis, and that may be part of why, aside from the statue’s shape, the students gave it that particular onomastic name. If one subscribes to the theory that high school students are immature, then there’s that explanation, too.

Blason Populaire Joke

The informant heard the following joke from one of her classmates in high school.

“Okay, so this one is horrible. I ask someone, ‘Do you know what Ethiopian food tastes like?’ Say, ‘No.’ And then I say, ‘Well, neither do Ethiopians.’ The joke is, because, Ethiopians don’t know what Ethiopian food tastes like because they are starved.”

The informant claims that she herself is not usually an active bearer of the joke: “You never tell it. Except right now [laughter].”

She finds the joke amusing precisely because it is so terrible: “Yeah, I think it’s a pretty bad joke . . . It’s one of those jokes where you think it’s really funny but you also know that it’s just an awful joke.”

Part of the humor value of this blason populaire joke is that it is taboo. You know that it’s awful that people are starving to death in Ethiopia, but at the same time it’s easier to laugh about it than to do anything about it. And it feels better to be amused than to be guilty for not helping.

Dirty Joke – American

The informant says she heard the following joke from a student at the University of Southern California: “I heard this one on, um, a—a hiking trip I went on . . . and it was a nighttime hike and we were looking at the stars, and the guides were telling astronomy stories and stuff, but one of them, uh, he told this dirty physics joke.”

The joke follows: “It’s uh, based on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which, uh, I guess states something like, ‘If you know something—object’s position, then you can’t know its velocity and vice versa, if you know something’s velocity you can’t know its positions.’ So the joke is, uh, ‘Why was the physics, uh, the physics student, er, um, bad in bed? Because every time he found the right position he didn’t have the right velocity, and every time he had the right velocity he couldn’t find the right position.’”

The informant likes to retell this joke to people she knows are studying math.

She finds the joke funny because it makes light of a serious and unfortunate situation.

The joke is clearly intended for an educated audience; to understand the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even with an explanation, requires some small knowledge of atomic structure. The Principle refers especially to electrons, which are so small that they’re hard to place. The telling of the joke might even be seen as somewhat of a status symbol—if you get the joke, you’re “in.” The joke of course has a terminus post quem of the proposal of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Folk Medicine: Acne Remedy

The informant heard the following folk medicine remedy for acne from her father.

The concept is that the person with acne is supposed to cut a chunk from an aloe plant and smear it on his or her face: “I used to have really bad acne [laughter] so have a li’l so when he was younger and so my [her father’s] sister—his [her father’s] mother would tell them to put aloe vera, like the plant, all over their faces and stuff, ‘cause it’s s’posed to be like, healing for cuts and stuff like that, g—and inflammation, so’e—sh—my aunt especially would do that, so, that’s . . .”

The informant says she has never tried it “cause [she doesn’t] own an aloe vera plant, but . . . [laughter]”

However, she believes that the remedy would work: “I think it’s a good idea, I mean, it seems like it makes sense—things I’ve seen on TV and stuff, seems like—natural remedy thing would work, so, yeah.”

Acne is caused by the buildup of dirt and oil in the pores, so it seems unlikely that this remedy would work and more likely that it would just further clog the pores with plant gunk. A pimple is not a wound like a cut to be soothed, and although a pimple stinging from having been scratched open might feel better, it probably wouldn’t go away any faster. Acne is associated with puberty, which is a liminal stage and might therefore be irritating to the sufferer as a signal that he or she is not quite one thing and not quite another.

Children’s Song

The informant learned the following children’s song “while [he] was on Catalina Island with [his], um, Indian Guides Troop as a young man.” Here are the lyrics:

Catalina Magalina Hoopa Stina Walladina

Hoka Poka Loka was her name.

Oh, she dove like a feather and floated like a rock,

When she hit the bottom you could hear her at the top,

Catalina Magalina Hoopa Stina Walladina

Hoka Poka Loka was her name.

Oh, she had two hairs that were on her head,

One was live and the other was dead,

Catalina Magalina Hoopa Stina Walladina

Hoka Poka Loka was her name.

Oh, she had two teeth that were in her mouth,

One pointed north and the other pointed south,

Catalina Magalina Hoopa Stina Walladina

Hoka Poka Loka was her name.

Here is a sound clip of the informant performing the song: Catalina Magalina

The informant said that he usually sang around the campfire as a boy and that “it does seem to be kind of a camp song, uh, something that, uh, that kids sing. And see how fast they can sing.”

The informant appears to find the song mildly amusing: “Izza goofy li’l song that basically, uh, insults the hell out of one poor girl. [snort]”

This song—aside from being a way for children to confound adults as to what on earth their children are singing—seems to be build as a challenge, perhaps even a sort of rite of passage. How many names can you remember? How clearly can you pronounce them? How quickly can you sing them? How much can you get through before you have to take a breath? The song also might be considered Indian fakelore, since it was being sung by a group of children pretending to be Natve Americans but is clearly not a traditional Native American song, though it might be possible to fool younger children into believing that it is. Insulting this girl could be a form of trying to counter the evil eye—if you accuse someone else of being ugly, perhaps you won’t be so yourself.

Proverb – American

The informant learned the following proverb from his father:

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

The informant interprets it to mean that “you can’t, you know, you can’t produce greatness out of nothing. No, you have to have the basic ingredients to create what you are attempting to make.” The informant recalls that his father often said the proverb to his mother when she complained about his cutting corners: “Since he was a very handy person, he—y—he, um, he jury-rigged whenever he could, but he understood that there were limitations to doing so. And when it was brought up that there were limitations—which it generally was, because my mother was a very nitpicky person—uh, his response was invariably, ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.’” The informant himself occasionally uses the proverb when it seems relevant, but only when he feels that the person he’s speaking to will understand him: “Most people don’no [sic] what a sow is any more.”

When asked what he thinks of the proverb, the informant says, “I feel that it’s, uh, it’s terminology is pretty out of date, but t’lesson is soun’.”

A sow is, of course, a female pig, and the proverb most likely is a remnant of times when farming was the major occupation in America. The comparison between the silk purse and the sow’s ear seems likely to stem from the delicacy of the ear and the way the light shines through it as through silk. A full-grown sow is very large and its ear could conceivably be large enough to use as a purse. The fact that the informant’s father addressed it to his mother is telling and could even be considered sexist; of course, it would be a woman who would want a silk purse and be foolish enough to think that it was possible to make one out of the ear of a pig.

FOAF Story

The names in the following FOAF story have been censored to protect the people involved:

“This story involves my friend M—’s friend C—. He was a, uh, they used to hang out at his place on Thursday nights, a large group of them, and they were doing this one evening and they went over to the pizza place that was right around the corner, uh, and this was part of their normal traditions. Each night that they went he [C—] started flirting with this one, uh server that worked there. And then one night he said, ‘Okay, that’s it, guys, I’m gonna make my move.’

“So they said, ‘Okay; good luck.’

“And he said ‘All right. Here are my keys—house keys’—they were hanging at his place—‘If I don’t come back, hey, uh, hide them in the planter.’ Okay. So they go back, hang out at his place for a couple of hours, hide the keys in the planter, and take off.

“M— sees him two days later and he said, ‘Hey, what’s up? Y’know, what happened? Uh, you didn’t come back. Did you go out with her?’

“And he [C—] said, ‘Well, I sh—I didn’t want to take her back to my place ’cause you guys were there. She wouldn’t tell me why, but she said she didn’t want to go back to her place. So we got a hotel room.’


“‘Yeah, we got a hotel room right away.’

“‘Okay, and then what happened?’

“‘Well’n, started makin’ out, she took off her clothes.’

“M— said, ‘Okay, so—ha—y’know, what was it like?’

“H’said [C—], “Oh, she—great, great breasts.’

“‘Cool. What about the rest of her?’

“He [C—] said, ‘Well, y’ever, you know, uh, remember those pictures of people’s lungs when they smoke?’

“[M—] Says, ‘You mean enphyzema?’

“H’said [C—], ‘Yeah, yeah, y’know’z all black, and bubbly, and stuff?’

“[M—] Said, ‘Yeah.’

“H’ed [C—], “Well, i’ looked like she smoked with her vagina.’

“[M—] Said, ‘Holy crap! What did you do?’

“’Ed [C—], ‘Well, I just stared at her tits.’

“‘Okay . . . so . . . then what happened?’

“Hed [M—], “Well, we were goin’ at it, she was on top of me and she had her head back and she was really into it and she was just, uh, had her eyes closed, and then she suddenly pulled back her fist and screamed, —You son’uva— and then she opened her eyes and she looked at me and she said —Oh my God, I’m so sorry! For a second there, I thought you were somebody else.—’

“M— was like, ‘Oh my God, man, what did you do?’

“‘I’ll tell ya. As soon as I finished up, I got the hell out of there.’ Yeah.”

The informant tells this story “generally when people are discussing the most horrific sexual experiences that they are aware of—this story gets carted out.”

The informant is not certain of the veracity of the story but likes it anyway: “Um, I think that it’s fantastic, uh, and amusing, uh, and horrifying all at once. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I do know that it is a wonderful tale.”

The story, besides serving as a way to horrify people, could be considered a warning of the dangers of sex—STDs especially. Then, too, it might be a metaphor for the fears of the virginal about what it will be like to have sex. C—’s reason for telling the story to M—, if it was not true, was likely similar to the informant’s reason for repeating it—it makes a good horror story.

Folk Song – American

The informant learned the following folk song, called “Froggy Went a-Courtin,’” at “Rendezvous . . . a campout. [He] learned it at a campout from several other people who were singing it ’round a fire playing guitar and a banjo.” The lyrics are as follows:

Froggy went a-courtin’ and a-he did ride, mm-hmm, mm-hmm
Froggy went a-courtin’ and a-he did ride, mm-hmm, mm-hmm

Froggy went a courtin’ and a-he did ride,
Sword and a pistol by his side, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Froggy went down to Miss Mousie’s house, mm-hmm, mm-hmm
Froggy went down to Miss Mousie’s house, mm-hmm, mm-hmm
Froggy went down to Miss Mousie’s house,
Wanted to marry that cute little mouse, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Sat Miss Mousie down on his knee, mm-hmm, mm-hmm
Sat Miss Mousie down on his knee, uh-huh, uh-huh
Sat Miss Mousie down on his knee,
Said Miss Mousie, would you marry me, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Not without Uncle Rat’s consent, uh-huh, uh-huh
Not without Uncle Rat’s consent, uh-huh, uh-huh
Not without Uncle Rat’s consent,
She would not marry the President, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.

Here is a sound clip of the informant singing the song: Froggy Went a-Courtin’

The informant says that the only place he’s ever performed the song or heard it performed is at campouts. His opinion of the song is that “it’s a great little song. It’s great for a singalong; it’s very easy to pick up.”

The song is rather repetitive and, according to the informant, has many more verses, so it does seem like the type of song that anyone could pick up, sing until he or she got tired of it, and then make up his or her own verses. My guess would be that the lyrics are quite flexible. The song is listed in the songbook 500 Best-loved Song Lyrics with slighty different phrasing as an English folk song (103) and there is actually a musical of the same name by Stanley Werner based on the song. The song is also interesting as a tale; it appears to promote the traditional value of female obedience.


Herder, Ronald. 500 Best-loved Song Lyrics. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1998.

Werner, Stanley. Froggie Went A’Courtin.’ Woodstock, Illinois: Dramatic Publishing, 1970.

Style of Dress – American

Some American men wear very baggy pants and let them sag to show their boxers. The informant learned the following folk explanation as to the origin of the style “maybe right around high school, or, um, when [she] was just past high school and [her] little brother was doing it when he was in high school. She doesn’t remember from whom she first heard the explanation, but she recalls first seeing the style in high school: “Um, it seemed to be something that, uh, a lot of the African-American guys would do in high school. Uh, but now I see a lot of people do it and it’s just . . . it’s not good [laughter].”

The informant heard that the style originated in prison, where the low man on the sexual totem pole would wear saggy pants: “Basically, uh, young boys and even grown men tend to wear baggy pants or pants that they sag down past their boxer shorts, showing almost all of their boxer shorts, wearing pants that are, you know, a good ten sizes too bit for them. What they don’t realize is the true meaning of the sagging jeans, sagging pants. Uh, it actually stems from prison. Uh, the man who would wear the saggy pants, um, that were sagging past his butt actually indicated that he was the man that men would go to, uh, for, uh, for intercourse. And it showed that he was basically the bitch of the cellblock. So, uh, basically indicated that he was the one who would, uh, take it in the rear, for lack of better terms.”

The informant regards the style itself with a mixture of rue and amusement: “This nugget of knowledge is something that I wish more younger men would understand . . . Um . . . but I don’t think most men get that today who sag their pants. They think it looks cool but they don’t really see that is indicated that they are the, the prison bitch. So I think that that’s interesting. Um, if they do know this they don’t seem to care. Uh, but I think it’s just something that most people who sag their pants aren’t familiar with. So they are, um, unassumingly, uh, displaying their wares, as it were.

The informant shared the explanation with her nephew, “who actually seemed to have gotten the hint once it was explained to him.” She says that she would share it with anyone she felt comfortable with and wanted to have more respect for him- or herself: “If I was comfortable with approaching the individual, egh, like if it was my nephew. Or my brother, or somebody who, um, who is younger than me who I would be an authority—kind of an authority figure to, who would respect my, uh, input. I’m not just going to stop a random guy on the street and say, ‘Hey, you know that means you’re a prison bitch?’ ’cause that’s just not cool. But I think I would if it was somebody that I cared about, like a relative or a workmate or somebody that I, y’know, had a little bit more respect for and wanted them to respect themselves more, I would share that information with them.”

The folk explanation could be true, although it does seem like a story that might be dispensed by parents and other adults to discourage children from wearing a style their relatives find distasteful, as the informant used it on her nephew. It would be effective for that purpose because prison inmates are looked down upon and anal sex is still somewhat taboo, so impressionable boys might not wish to associate themselves with the former or symbolically invite the latter. Saggy pants could be considered an American folk costume, since the style has not been much endorsed by authorities—the folk group being, if this story is true, prison inmates and their imitators.