USC Digital Folklore Archives / Proverbs
Legends
Proverbs

The Story Behind Japanese Saying: 情けは人の為ならず (One Good Turn Deserves Another)

Main Piece:

“There is a common saying in Japan, in Japanese it’s: 情けは人の為ならず.

Original script: 情けは人の為ならず

Phonetic (Roman) script: Nasake wa hito no tame narazu

Transliteration: the good you do for others is good you do yourself.

Full translation: One good turn deserves another. 

It means when you do things for someone, it’s not for them, it’s for yourself. So, I mean it connects to the story about like, ummm like an old man walking to a winter mountain, then he finds like three stone, umm what do you call those? Like statues of Japanese monk. It’s like a tiny mini one, really cute. And he’s like: “Oh no, it’s snowing.” It’s statue right? Obviously it has no feelings or anything. But then the old man was like:”Oh my gosh. It’s snowing and it’s probably really cold.” So he makes these like three ummm straw hats for those three stone statues and then place it upon them. Then he will like, you know, get along his life. When he goes home, and the next morning, he wakes up and he opens the front door, and then he finds like this chunk of rice. At that time, obviously rice equals money. So what happen was those stone statue, like the monks kind of came to life and came to life to thank him, saying like thanks for the straw hats. Oh I think he makes like straw coats as well. You know, just like something to put on the statue. And like these rice is just to show gratitude and everything. So yea, this is where this saying comes from. So 情けは人の為ならず is just do something for someone, like yea you are helping them but ultimately you are helping yourself. Like it’s always gonna come back to you. That’s like the saying.”

Background:

My informant was born in Osaka, Japan. Both of her parents are very Japanese. So although she immediately moved to Hong Kong after she was born, she learned Japanese and Japanese culture from her parents. She knew this saying and the story behind it because her dad told her when she was at a kid. She feels a lot of the time when people do things for someone or even just make friends with someone, they think about benefit or cost they get. But in her mind, because of this saying and the way her dad teaches her, she deems that in order to live a happy life, people need to do things for each other. So my informant is always happy to give out her help and be kind to people even when they are mean sometimes. Growing up embedded with this mindset, my informant feels this saying shapes her action and life attitude.

Context:

She is a good friend of mine since we both lived in Osaka for a while. This piece was collected as we had lunch at the USC village. I invited her to talk about her culture and we were sharing thoughts while waiting for the food. The conversation was conducted under a relaxing environment and we both feel pretty comfortable sharing our childhood experience.

Thoughts

Personally, I really like this folk piece because it’s not like other sayings that only have one sentence, this saying has a story behind it, which reflects a lot of Japanese culture. For example, it talks about Japanese monks which are associated with Shinto and Buddhism religions which are the two major religions in Japan. Also, the straw hat and straw coat that are mentioned in the story are also representations of Japanese tradition. Straw hat is often worn by Japanese monks. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch Ikkyū-san, which is a Japanese anime about the life of a monk. In the show, I often see the character Ikkyū wears a straw hat. In addition, the straw coat, known as mino (蓑) in Japan, is a traditional Japanese garment that functions like a raincoat and is often used in snowy regions. Lastly, the gift of rice reflects the Asian culture as well. If it is a western story, it will probably be gold which is often seen in western fair tales. The presentation of rice shows culture difference between east and west.

 

 

Proverbs

“If You Lie Down With Dogs, You Get Up With Fleas”

Main piece:

“We have sayings like as my mama always said, she will always sit there and be like: ‘Ummm when you lay with dog you get fleas.’ So you are who yourself associate with the all times, your direct function of whoever you decide you associate with and who you are friends with.”

Background:

My informant always hears her mom say this saying to her to warn her be aware of the people who she decides to associate with. She is largely influenced by this saying as she grows up, and she is constantly aware of the people who she is friends with. She also tries to stay away from the people who she does not appreciate to avoid bad influence on her.

Context:

This piece of folklore was collected through a quick interview after class. My informant and I knew each other when we first came to the college, so the setting was really causal and both of us were relaxed.

Thoughts:

I know a similar saying but in Chinese, which is:

Original saying in Chinese: 近朱者赤, 近墨者黑

Phonetic (Roman) script: Jin zhu zhe chi, jin mo zhe hei.

Transliteration: If you go towards red then you are red, and if you go towards black then you are black.

Full translation: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

This saying also alerts people to be aware of the people that they are associated with. The color red in this saying refers to good influence, and the color black refers to bad influence. I grow up hearing this saying multiple times. It is also in the primary school textbook and my parents say it to me often too to educate me to be a good person and to be selective of my social circle.

 

 

Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

French Dinner Expression

Context:

The informant – MZ – is a middle-aged woman originally from France, now living in South Florida. Growing up, her mother was French-Moroccan, and her father was Moroccan-Algerian. She is one of my mother’s close friends. The following is from a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about any French-Moroccan traditions she remembers growing up. Here, she tells me about a French saying/joke her grandmother used to say to her after MZ would ask her what’s for dinner.

 

Original text:

“Des briques soufflées à la sauce cailloux.”

 

Word for word translation:

Blown bricks with pebble sauce

 

MZ: Back in the old day, the way they would make roof tile is it would be baked in a big oven. So she used to say that she would make oven roof tile with a stone marinade for dinner. I used to hear that all the time, because there would be really nothing for dinner.

 

Analysis:

Though “Blown bricks with pebbles sauce” doesn’t sound entirely elegant, it seems like, in French, there is wordplay between the bricks, which are baked in ovens, and the food, which would be baked in the oven. The quote seems to be fairly similar to saying, “slim pickin’s,” in English, simply meaning that there is nothing to eat.

 

Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

Pretty Is as Pretty Does

Context:

The informant – AS – is my mother, and is a 55-year-old woman, born and raised in New Britain Connecticut, currently living in South Florida. I asked her if she had any folklore to share, and she told me about a proverb that her blind mother used to say to her.

 

Piece:

 

AS: One of the things my mother always used to say to me: “Pretty is as pretty does.” Pretty is as pretty does. And basically what it means is, you can be as good looking as you want, but if you don’t act right, then you’re not pretty. So it’s about looking as good on the inside as you look on the outside. But, she used to say it in a mean way. Like if I did anything that she didn’t like or something, then she would pull that out.

 

Analysis:

This seems to be classic variation on “as beautiful on the inside as on the outside,” but reworked into a more scolding fashion. It is also somewhat amusing, since the informant’s mother was blind, the proverb/saying might have some more significance, since it involves physical appearance versus behavior.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Proverbs

Looking for Water: Marathi Proverb about Appreciation

Text:

AB: “There’s this proverb that my mom says –”

“Kakhet kalsa gavala valsa”

AB: “– which basically means that you have um a pitcher of water in your hand but you’re looking for water in other places, which I mean happens literally too like how many times do you have glasses on your head and you keep for them in other places? But I think the more like metaphorical meaning is supposed to be that people tend to not realize what they have because they too busy like searching for things outside. So like not appreciating what you already have I guess.”

AB: “Yeah people usually say it to me when I’m complaining about all the problems in my life – they’re like “kakhet kalsa gavala valsa” like you’re not being grateful for all the good stuff that you have.”

 

Context:

The informant is an Indian-American college student from Los Altos, California. This conversation took place in my apartment while the informant and I, among a group of other people, were discussing our very diverse childhoods growing up in different parts of the world. Marathi is the language spoken in a specific region of India. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

The informant does a pretty good job of explaining what the proverb means. An English equivalent would be “the grass is always greener on the other side”. It is interesting how the informant relates it to literal situations like looking for glasses which were on your head all along – this to me highlights the relevance of proverbs and emphasizes their staying power. Because their literal meaning is so easily understood intuitively, their figurative meaning holds more power.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Proverb for How to Approach Different Kinds of Bears

[The subject is MSt. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

MSt: If it’s black, attack; if it’s brown, lie down; if it’s white, good night.

ME: Could you explain that for me?

MSt: Alright, so when you’re, like, in the backcountry, you see a bear, there’s different, like, responses that you should have depending on the type of bear, so if it’s black, attack; brown, lie down; uh, white, good night. So black bears are easily scared… One time I, like, there was a black bear- a black bear kind of came into my campsite and was like, rustling around, scaring everybody, but we were just, like, real loud that night, and we all sang into the campfire, and like, we scared it away.

ME: So black means you attack.

MSt: Black means you attack. ‘Cause they’re scared of humans. So they mostly just don’t want the trouble. Like, any bear’s gonna get between you and their cub, but pretty much, like, black bears don’t want the fight. They just wanna, like, live their own life. Which, retweet.

Brown bears: brown, lie down. So brown bears, grizzlies, will attack you, but only if, like, you’re interesting to them. So just, like, lay down, try to make yourself small, like, be very clear that you’re not gonna try to attack them, ‘cause they will fight you and they will win. Play dead, because you will most likely die if you see a grizzly bear, but there’s a chance you won’t if you just, like, play dead.
And then white is good night, because, like, if you see a polar bear you’re fucked.

Context: MSt is one of my suitemates, and a sophomore student in college. She was born in Germany and moved to Michigan when she was five years old, where she grew up and lived until coming to USC. German was her first language, and though she still understands it she has forgotten how to speak fluently and now considers English her primary language. She has always been interested in hiking, camping, and spending time outdoors. In the middle of a conversation about our favorite deadly animals, I mentioned polar bears and she recited the proverb above, which I then asked her to explain. She told me that she had heard it from a teacher on a high school camping trip after they saw a brown bear pawing at one of the tents and scared it off by blowing whistles and loudly singing songs.

Thoughts: The reason MSt saying this stuck out to me in the middle of our conversation was that growing up, I always knew that there were different ways you were supposed to react depending on the type of bear you ran into, but I had no way of remembering what there were. This was the first time I had heard something like “leaves of three, let it be” (a proverb about avoiding poison ivy) that applied to bears, and it feels like something I should have learned growing up. I can see it being spread very easily from person to person because in addition to being short, catchy, and easy to remember, it is actually helpful to know if you’re in a situation where you might encounter a bear, and besides that, the last third of it is funny. It makes sense as a proverb that an authority/mentor figure would tell a student (which is how MSt first heard it), but also as something kids could say to one another for fun in a relevant conversation (which is how I first heard it).

Adulthood
Folk speech
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Proverbs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Polish Wedding Joke

Main Piece

QJ: “Can it be a dirty joke?”

Collector: “Yes.”

QJ: “A lot of the jokes I grew up with are kind of dirty…most Polish ones are…I think one that my grandfather would say asks what is long and hard that a Polish bride gets on her wedding night?”

Collector: “What?”

QJ: “A new last name.”

Analysis

This joke seems to be fairly popular among Polish people, and I have heard it beyond my informant. In fact, I have heard it outside of the realm of Polish culture, and have seen different ethnic backgrounds attached to it. It seems that many prideful Slavic people make light of their often long and hard to pronounce last names through jokes like these. Given my informant’s background for the joke and explaining that he heard ones like these growing up, I would also assume that his culture and family have more of an openness to tell dirty jokes in front of younger audience. Generally, it would seem that older people have more of a relaxed ability to tell jokes that otherwise would not seem appropriate. This joke also implies a patriarchal society, where a woman would receive something from her husband in any interpretation of the joke, but no jokes suggest the woman giving the man anything.

 

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

Flourishing despite circumstance – Mexican Proverb

Main Piece:

“El que es perico donde quiera es verde.”

Transliteration:

The one that is a parrot wherever he wants is green.

Translation:

Someone that is bright will flourish despite any circumstance he might find himself in.

Background:

Informant

Nationality: Mexican

Location: Guadalajara, Mexico

Language: Spanish

 Context and Analysis:

I asked my Informant, a 74-year-old female if she knew of any sayings that have stuck with her throughout her life. At first, she answered she didn’t know any and after I told her one of the proverbs I knew she said she remembered this one. I asked what the proverb meant to her, and she responded that it means, someone smart would thrive in any situation he is placed in. She says her husband has many friends that came from very little and with their merit were able to become very successful people in their lives. These people were not handed anything, everything they have they earned. 

I agree with my informant’s interpretation of the proverb. Parrots have a very vibrant green color that stands out wherever they are.  I believe the proverb uses this identification to compare it to the stand out character of a person who is intelligent and full of personality. Someone that has charismatic and unique qualities will stand out wherever he is. Just like the parrot’s color will not change despite his environment this bright person will stand out despite his background. I also see this proverb as having implications to status and wealth. The proverb in english, “born with a silver spoon in your mouth” is often used to refer to those that were given everything and therefore naturally thrive. On the contrary, the proverb “El que es perico donde quiera es verde” speaks to being able to flourish despite the environment someone is in and what is given to them. 

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Proverbs

I am no gold coin to be liked by all – Mexican proverb

Main Piece:

“No soy monedita de oro para caerle bien a todos.”

Transliteration:

No am small coin of gold to fall good to all

Translation:

I am no gold coin to be liked by all

Background:

Informant

Nationality: Mexican

Location: Guadalajara, Mexico

Language: Spanish

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 49-year-old male. He claims the first time he heard this saying was many years ago. He says his grandmother on his mother’s side, who has passed away now, used to often repeat this saying during her life. He claims his grandmother was a strong decision maker and always had very good relationships with everyone, especially politicians and governors. In those circles, it is easy for one to be criticized, but his grandmother would not fall victim to these criticisms because she believed in what she thought was right and was not there to please others.  She fought for what she believed in despite what others might have thought of her. My informant claims the saying is self-explanatory. He says it is impossible to make everyone happy there are always social classes and people who are jealous of others and that can cause dislike. He emphasizes, “not everyone has to like you.”

I believe what my informant means by this saying being self-explanatory is that the proverb implies everyone likes gold coins. Therefore, if someone is a ‘gold coin’ it would come to mean everyone would like them. However, people are not gold coins, they come with opinions, qualities, personalities, and ideas. All of these characteristics can make them favored by some and disliked by others. The proverb therefore states that there is no way one can be liked by all for they are not gold coins.

 

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

Liquor before beer and you’re in the clear – American Drinking Proverb

Main Piece:

“Liquor before beer and you’re in the clear, beer before liquor never been sicker.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 19-year-old male. The informant claims he first heard this proverb when he was in ninth grade. It was one of the first times he was consuming alcohol and was not paying attention to the type of alcohol he was consuming. He was alternating between drinking beer and simultaneously taking shots of vodka. When one of his friends said to him the proverb. He disregarded the advice as it was too late, and continued to drink. The informant says he did not end the night feeling very well; however, he does not live by the proverb for in other situations when he has followed the proverb’s advice the night has still ended badly.

I have also heard this proverb before and know many people that do live by it. On many occasions, I have even heard it is bad to mix any type of alcohol. Often I do not hear this while I’m in a setting where alcohol is being consumed, but after. Most often it is during the day or after a night of alcohol consumption when someone will make a reference to the proverb, and claim the person who had a bad night was at fault because they did not follow the proverb’s advice. After looking further into this proverb, I found many sources claiming it was a myth. One of the most reputable sources I found was by CBS News, they claim “hangovers are more dependent on the total amount of alcohol consumed, rather than the order of drinking.” The rhyme of the proverb makes it catchy and easy to remember. I believe this is a significant factor in what makes this proverb so popular. Keeping in mind my informant’s age I also believe it is a proverb most often found in younger circles where there is less exposure to alcohol. Most teens are still in the experimental phase of alcohol consumption in their lives, and therefore are more susceptible to catchy phrases such as these that are not true.

https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/14-facts-about-drinking-are-you-misinformed/8/

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