USC Digital Folklore Archives / Proverbs
Folk speech
Proverbs

Italian–American Proverb about Age

Main Piece

“I was where you are, and you’ll be where I am.”

For a similarly worded proverb with a different usage, see Frederick Hartt. Italian Renaissance Art, Third Edition, 1987, published by Harry N. Abrams, pp 203-4.

Background

Informant

Nationality: Italian–American

Location: Staten Island, New York

Language: English, Italian

The informant learned the above proverb from her grandmother. The informant’s grandmother will first state the proverb in Italian, but the informant does not speak Italian, and so the informant’s grandmother will follow up by saying the proverb in English. Hence, the informant only understands the proverb as it is told in English, which is why I have chosen not to include a translation.

Context

The informant’s grandmother says the proverb when any of her children or grandchildren make fun of her for being old or says something along the lines of “Grandma, you don’t understand,” in regards to the grandmother’s technological prowess.

Notes

I have seen this proverb before, but I have only ever seen it as an epithet on gravestones, which is the usage of the example I cited above. In either instance, the informants example or the gravestone, the proverb speaks to the inescapability of time. Most people tend to shy away from such topics, and the proverb helps state the truism in a pithy, approachable way.

 

Proverbs

KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid

Context:

The subject is a white man from Dallas, Texas. We were talking about his family when he told me this proverb. I like this idea of the proverb being an engineering saying, an occupational proverb.

 

Piece:

“When my dad was teaching me, um, woodworking and we were getting into making. And that was the start of me getting into engineering there was an axiom that’s like everywhere in engineer but he specifically drilled it into me so I always think about him that is KISS which is Keep It Simple Stupid”

 

Proverbs

Win Some, Lose Most

Context:

The subject is a white male and a lifelong New Yorker from Manhattan and Queens. He is my twin brother and we attended the boarding school Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. Before this we were discussing boarding school and teen culture and how low levels of depression was a large part of that. We made a lot of jokes about it which led to this proverb. This proverb interests me because it is a youth proverb and those are very rare as we associate proverbs with age and wiseness. And it is a proverb that was created by youth and only used by youth in a sort of rebellion against that proverbial wisdom.

 

Piece:

“What we’d used to say, you know after something pretty shitty happened. Like you got a bad grade on a test or like you, it became really stupid after a while like you’d stub your toe and say “win some, lose most” and everyone would just agree with you. You know, it’s like “win some, lose some” but like true. It was sorta a joke”

 

Folk speech
Proverbs

Shrimp Proverb

Main Piece: Proverb

“El camaron que se duerma se la lleva la corriente”

Translation:

A sleeping shrimp will be swept by the current.

Background Information:

  • Why does informant know this piece?

He was constantly told that as a kid because he would procrastinate on his assignments

  • Where did they learn this piece?

From his Cuban relatives

  • What does it mean to them?

It means to be constantly aware of what you have control over/required to do. If there’s any change, you don’t want to be controlled by its consequences.

Context:

It’s based on the observation of shrimp, when sleeping being taken away from their original location. This can thus be inferred that one must always be on top of whatever they are tasked with, because if not suddenly you lose control and arrive somewhere different and unknown.

Personal Thoughts:

I find this proverb to be very interesting, because a shrimp is normally an insignificant animal that no one really thinks about, but in this case the shrimp is meant to represent a person, and people generally consider themselves to be important.

Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

Movie Quote Passes Into Normal Speech

Main Piece

The following is often quoted in the informant’s family: “You fall behind, you get left behind.”

For the origin and correct wording of this proverb–like quote, see Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Directed by Gore Verbinski, Walt Disney Pictures, 2003.

Background

Informant

Nationality: American

Location: Connecticut

Language: English

The informant’s immediate family say this to each other “all the time” whenever someone is moving too slow. The informant’s family first learned the quote together while watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, but the quote is no longer a reference to the film, as it has become a regular part of their speech pattern. It functions like a proverb.

Context

The informant and their family misquoted the line. The actual line is “Any man who falls behind is left behind.”

Notes

The interchange between media and folklore is exhibited here and is very interesting. The quote is not really a proverb, but it is not really fakelore either, because the film did not do anything intentional to pass it off as fakelore. It is interesting how misquoted lines are themselves something of a folklore genre; one of the most famous movie quotes of all time, from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is “No, I am your father,” but it is usually misquoted as “Luke, I am your father.”

 

Folk speech
Proverbs

“The Value of Hard Work”

Context & Analysis

The subject and I were eating lunch together and I asked him to tell me about any traditions or sayings he remembers from his family. The subject told me he doesn’t have a strong connection with his parents, but that in particular, his parents have always emphasized the value of hard work. The subject stated that the proverb is a traditional Chinese proverb, but provided me with a rough summary as he remembered his parents telling him. After doing some research, the story comes from a Chinese idiom, “Shòu zhū dài tù”, or “Watching a tree stump, waiting for rabbits” (visiontimes.com). Additionally, the original idiom does not mention the farmer himself dying, so this could possibly be an alternative ending that the subject’s parents told him for extra emphasis. This seems like a rather graphic story to tell to a young child, but the proverb and the idiom it originates from highlights the reliability of hard work instead of luck. (Source url: http://www.visiontimes.com/2013/11/18/the-chinese-idiom-watching-a-tree-stump-waiting-for-rabbits.html)

Main Piece

“The jist of the proverb is about a farmer who one day luckily manages to catch a rabbit that runs head first into a tree. So instead of farming or working hard, he decides to sit by the tree every day and wait for more rabbits to run into the tree. Of course that never happens because that’s only a really lucky occurrence, so he starves and dies.”   

Folk speech
Proverbs

“The Best Construction”

Context & Analysis

The subject, my mother, and I were getting coffee for breakfast and I asked her if she could tell me some stories about her childhood. The subject’s father (who has recently passed away) was a history professor in the Midwest. The family moved frequently because of this, which made it difficult for them to settle in a single area for too long. The subject’s mother was a stay-at-home mother; she also has four other siblings. The subject’s parents were both the children of Norwegian immigrants and emphasized the value of hard work and wise spending habits. I think that this proverb reflects the down-to-earth and positive nature of the subject’s father. I haven’t encountered the exact version of this proverb anywhere else, but similar sayings exist sharing the theme of ‘seeing the best in other people’.

Main Piece

“My dad would always say, like, if we would complain about another person and say they were really mean he would say “Put the best construction on everything” so you don’t know, maybe they had good intentions, so think the best of other people.”

 

Folk speech
Proverbs

“It’s Worth Doing Well”

Context & Analysis

The subject, my mother, and I were getting coffee for breakfast and I asked her if she could tell me some stories about her childhood. The subject’s father (who has recently passed away) was a history professor in the Midwest. The family moved frequently because of this, which made it difficult for them to settle in a single area for too long. The subject’s mother was a stay-at-home mother; she also has four other siblings. The subject’s parents were both the children of Norwegian immigrants and emphasized the value of hard work and wise spending habits. I think that this proverb especially reflects the down-to-earth and hard-working nature of the subject’s parents. I’ve heard similar renditions of this proverb (i.e. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right”) from other sources throughout my life.

Main Piece

“My mom would always say “if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing well” so, like that means don’t do a sloppy job or half-heartedly do something.


 

Folk speech
Proverbs

Chinoisms: Canning

Context & Analysis

The subject often mentions her mother’s “Chinoisms”, or unique sayings that her mother learned when growing up in Chino, CA. Below is the subject’s direct quote on the origin of her mother’s proverbs:

            “So my mom comes from Chino [California], and so she has a plethora of sayings that I didn’t even know what they meant earlier, I just said them until I got older and I was like “Oh! That actually makes sense!”

This proverb seems to suggest that the subject’s mother came from a background that was very conscious of food waste. The reference to the process of canning also implies that this saying could have originated before the refrigerator was the primary method of preserving food.

Main Piece

When you—when we’re eating food and we can’t finish it we say “Eat what you can, can what you can’t” so like you can’t eat what you can’t eat, so like you put it in a can if you can’t eat it, so like you’re saving it.”

Folk speech
Proverbs

“Nature Organizes Best”

Context & Analysis

The subject is a good friend of mine who has been going through some difficult times recently; I believe this is a very grounding (and likely comforting phrase) for her to remember. It has a similar tone to ‘Whatever’s meant to be will be’. I also think it is interesting that the phrase is not necessarily religious—and the subject is not religious herself—yet she still mentions spiritual ideas like God in her description of the proverb.

Main Piece

“My parents say this thing in which, it’s like,  “Nature organizes best”, which just means that a god—not necessarily god, I don’t know, in which, like, the way of the universe is working out that everything is supposed to be the way it’s meant to be—kind of like karma almost, but a little more to it than that. Like whatever’s happening in your life in the moment is supposed to happen because nature is organizing for you to learn and to grow and to become the best version of yourself which is something that my parents have always said to me when bad things are happening or when good things are happening. That things aren’t necessarily in your control and that, like, there’s something else out there and it’s not just you and that the world is working in your favor.”

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