USC Digital Folklore Archives / Proverbs
Folk speech
Humor
Narrative
Proverbs
Tales /märchen

Nate the Snake

Subject: Folk Speech. Humor.

Collection: “There were two towns that ruled all of the land, and every year… similar to Thanksgiving, they would battle it out for a day. One day the Western Kingdom thought to lace the Eastern Kingdom with explosives while all the townspeople were asleep and then blow up the town the next day, ending the fight completely. The successfully laced the entire Kingdom and hooked up the explosives to a giant lever. However, in the morning the King of the East came over bearing food and gifts as a peace treaty.  The King of the West accepted the peace treaty but felt bad because of the threats to blow up the other city, so he decided to declare peace and just not say anything about the bombs.  The King decided he needed someone to guard the lever so that no radicals or youngsters would mess with it, but the guards stationed at the lever were lazy and didn’t want to be standing around the lever. They missed their families and their children, but one day a snake name Nate came up to a guard and told him that he will watch over the lever. At first the guy was skeptical, but Nate the Snake told him how there’s plenty of land around for him to live in and to catch mice and survive. So Nate became the new guardian. Nate became the hero of the town and was loved by all! People wore Nate the Snake Shirts, celebrated Nate the Snake Day, Nate became the most common name in all the land… Nate lived in this glorious state of love and pride for the work he was doing for his country. However, one night as Nate was doing his rounds at the lever, he saw a truck driving straight towards the lever. Nate thought and thought and thought of what he could do but nothing came to him. All he could do was sit helplessly watching as a truck came barreling towards the lever. At the last minute, however, the truck swerved and hit Nate the Snake. News of Nate’s death shocked the Kingdom but you know what they say… better Nate than Lever.”

Background Info: J. Ingraham is a freshman enrolled at Chapman University pursuing a Bachelor of the Fine Arts in Theater Performance. He attended Dana Hills High School and is still a permanent resident of Laguna Niguel, CA. This story entered my social sphere from a mutual friend who he and I shared performing arts classes with in high school. The first time he heard the story was backstage at a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Context: I first heard this story in a car on a road trip to Big Bear, CA in December of 2016. It was relayed as friends jumped in to try to one up one another with their personal stories, and for general entertainment. The account of the story was given over email.

Analysis: This narrative builds up to the final punchline and is designed to allow the narrator to embellish as much or as little as they like, while remaining true to the story. I have heard telling in which the narrator went on a rant of all the different merchandise that the town people developed to celebrate Nate the Snake. Another teller gave an in-depth description of the last battle leading up to the Western kingdom lacing their enemy’s land with explosives. The goal is to make the story as absurd and intricate as possible so the simplicity of the punchline rhyming with the proverb, “Better late than never,” achieves its maximum potency.

The story features familiar troupes that locate the story securely in a Western society and one character that subverts expectations: Nate the Snake. First, the narrator locates itself as part of the Western kingdom which is painted as witty yet aggressive. The East, meanwhile, favors peace and gives the West lavish gifts from their land. This plays into ideas in classic literature of the East as languid and indulgent peoples while the West has discipline and democratic practices to keep them vigilant. Second, this was likely developed recently, since it contains references to explosives and a single trigger switch, making the references to kings and kingdoms somewhat out of place. However, I propose this is done to age the story and make it appear like a traditional piece of narrative folklore—playing off ideas of folklore as being something out of medieval Europe. One troupe that is not specific to a Western society is that of talking animals. Humanizing Nate the Snake and embedding him with intelligent thought and complex feeling causes his death to be more objectionable.

Lastly, the character of Nate the Snake is the hero of the story, which contrasts the traditional portrayal of the snake as a villain, or otherwise Satanic, in countries with histories of Abrahamic religions. This aesthetic modernizes the story as more and more people in America practice non-Abrahamic religions. I contend that Nate playing the role of protagonist comes as a surprise, since a snake is expected to be sneaky and deceptive, making the audience feel guilty for expecting Nate to be the villain and the punchline more ironic and shocking. Upon first hearing the story, I believed that the punchline was going to involve Nate betraying the Western kingdom, as snakes usually do. While snakes are animals so biases against them are not thought of as being objectionable, afterward I felt guilty for forcing my assumptions onto him. In this way, the content of Nate the Snake is built off traditional structures that then subvert to afford the joke its greatest effect.

Folk speech
Humor
Narrative
Proverbs

Quit While You’re Ahead

Subject: Folk speech. Humor.

Collection: “There once was a boy who was born with just a head. His parents were initially shocked at this but with the right medical treatment and enough time they got used to it. Every day he would wake up, and his mom would pick him up and put him on the windowsill so he could watch the other kids play outside. Every night the boy would pray and pray that he could just have arms so he could throw the ball around with his friends, and one day he woke up and had a fully connected torso with fully functioning arms. He woke up and yelled: “Mom!! Mom!!” His mom ran in the room and saw him and went to the dad’s closet to get him a shirt. She put the shirt on him then brought him out the front yard so he could play catch. However, the boy realized he couldn’t run around after the ball because he didn’t have legs, so he started to pray and pray that he could have legs so that he could run and play with the other kids. And one day, he woke up and had legs and shouted: “Mom!!” and his mom ran in and freaked out and grabbed him pants from his dad’s drawer. Then the boy ran out to go play with the other kids across the street, and as he was crossing the street, a car drove by a hit him, killing the boy instantly. The moral of the story is… quit while you’re ahead.”

Background Info: J. Ingraham is a freshman enrolled at Chapman University pursuing a Bachelor of the Fine Arts in Theater Performance. He attended Dana Hills High School and is still a permanent resident of Laguna Niguel, CA. The speaker first heard this story from his father who would frequently trick him and his sister into listening to the story again by saying, “Did I ever tell you the story about the kid who was born with just a head?”.

Context: I first heard this story in a car on a road trip to Big Bear, CA in December of 2016. It was relayed as friends jumped in to try to one up one another with their personal stories, and for general entertainment. I contacted the active bearer of this narrative upon being assigned the assignment to collect folk speech. The account of the story was given over email.

Analysis: This story begins with a long set up that creates the false expectation for the story to be a typical piece of narrative. However, it then breaks the genre’s mold with a final punch line which relies on the play on words. This subversion of genre adds to the surprise, causing the joke to be more humorous than if it had not had the preface.

In the narrative portion of the of the folk speech, the structure follows typical archetypes. The repetition in the story occurs three times; this follows the Western tradition of storytelling elements coming I threes. Multiples of threes appear frequently in Abrahamic religions; for example, the Holy Trinity or three days between death and resurrection. In this model the boy openly beseeches God for his desires which God delivers on. However, on the third repetition, the gift God has given him leads to his death. Not only does the content mock religion since it is God’s gift that lead the boy to his premature end, but also it subverts tradition.

The pun itself is a clever play on words. It takes a traditional English proverb and subverts it so its meaning becomes literal. It also physically embodies the meaning of the proverb in which the idea is that it is better to stop altogether if your endeavors are going well before something goes wrong. The harsh outcomes of not quitting in this situation reinforces the meaning of the traditional proverb while the absurdity comments on the potential for quitting to be equally foolish.

Proverbs

Tough Love

Main Piece: “I brought you into this world and I can take you out”

Background Information: The informant said he constantly heard this from his mother when he was growing up as a middle schooler. The informant is African American and grew up in a rougher area of New York. The informant said this saying is typical in his community, and the main lesson is that you need to treat your mother with respect because she is the one that has given you the opportunity to be in this world. The informant describes this saying as comical but also an important saying in his life and community.

Context: In a gas station in Los Angeles

Thoughts: This saying may seem harsh for a young kid to hear from his mother, but after talking with the informant it seems to fit the informants culture and community. The informant lived in a predominately African American community in New York that was very rough; there were constantly robberies and murders and it was not typical for people to go to school. It seems that mothers try to get their kids attention and control in order that their kids would not fall into a bad path. This proverb seems to be a warning to kids to not misbehave or disrespect their mothers which in turn will help them in the long run. 

 

 

Proverbs

Raman Grewal

Main Piece: “He who cannot handle the thorns cannot have the rose”- Raman Grewal

Background information: For the informat, he learned this from his parents who learned it from their parents. His parents learned this saying from their parents when they immigrated from Iran into the United States. When the informats parents were struggling to make a living and felt overwhelmed, their parents back in Iran told them this proverb that is common in the Persian community, especially upon immigrating to the United States and other countries. The basic premise behind the proveb is that something so beautiful will always have rough edges, and that  you can not have a good thing if you can’t handle the negative aspects of what come with it. This can apply to people but also also relationships as well. For the informat, he now lives by this and realizes that hardships are always unevitable when you are trying to achieve something you want.

Context of Performance: Outside of a gas station in San Diego

Thoughts: I think that this proverb is interesting because it is important for people in situations of people immigrating to another country, like the informants family. This means that people from other cultures realize that the “American Dream” might be very hard to achieve and might not be easy. Especially with the debate of immigrants and if they should be let into America and other countries, this proverb can be applicable in many different cultures because it demonstrates the reality of achieveing an appealing dream. 

 

 

Proverbs

Rouhmi Cryus

Main Piece: “Do not be around people who cannot fan your flames.” Rouhmi

Background Information:  The informat learned this saying from his grandparents in Iran when he was having trouble making friends in school. The informat says that this is a typical persian saying that most grandparents or parents tell their children when they are adolescents. The main message behind this is to be around people that can calm you down and ease your nerves. The informat says he takes this into consideration every time he is trying to meet new people and new friends.

Context of Performance: In the informant’s house in San Diego

Thoughts: This proverb seems telling of the Persian culture, especially of who you should surround yourself with. This is different from most proverbs because it is saying to surround yourself with people who can calm your down vs other proverbs that say be around happy upbeat people. This also relates to the Persian value of being humble, and being arround people who can ground you instead of always praise you.

 

 

Proverbs

Opportunities is everything

Main Piece: 机不可失,时不再来 jī bù kě shī, shí bú zài lái – Opportunity knocks at the door only once

Background Information: The informant frequently heard this saying from his parents and grandparents when he lived in China. The informant also said that this proverb hung on his math teachers’ classroom door and he would notice it everytime he would walk in. To the informant, he has taken this proverb to heart and wants to work hard so he can repay his parents who have given him so much by sending him to University in the United States. The informant describes this proverb as a typical Chinese proverb that teaches kids to be the best of the best and seize any opportunity even if it may seem out of reach.

Context: In the streets of downtown Los Angeles

Thoughts: This proverb might play a role in the competitive learning nature in China. Chinese kids are taught at a very young age to seize a lot of opportunities, as the informant stated and that education is the way of doing this. But I wonder if this creates a negative atmosphere for young  children since there has been an increase of attention surrounding the academic environment in Asia/China and if it is healthy for kids. 

 

 

Proverbs

Old Age Proverb

The following proverb was recorded from a conversation I had with a friend marked HL. I am marked CS. She shared with me a proverb she was told growing up from her Grandmother.

 

HL: “Experience is a comb that nature gives us when we’re bald.”

CS: “Can you explain to me a brief translation?”

HL: “Sure. In other words, I think it’s meant to be along the lines of how as we age we are gifted more experience and knowledge over time. I like it. We said it all of the time in my house.”

 

Background:

HL is currently a freshman at the University of Southern California. She grew up in Mission Viejo, California in a family with a strong Catholic background.

Context:

An in person conversation at a local coffee shop.

 

Analysis:

I enjoyed this proverb because it feels very frank, honest, and has an air of optimism. Instead of making age and growing up a dreadful future, it appreciates the growing because one gains much more knowledge and experience than they previously had. I think this saying is really important and something that could very well be spoken across many different kinds of cultures. I also enjoy its lighthearted and almost humorous tone, making the words less serious and indefinite and instead suggestive and admiring.

 

Proverbs

Lying & Stealing Proverb

Because most proverbs I know of tend to be incredibly well known and overstated in America, I decided to search online for unusual proverbs I would not recognize and research those proverbs’ meaning and origins. I found the most unique one to have Slovenian origins.

Proverb:

Lying a little and stealing a little will get you nicely through the world.

Translation:

Perhaps synonymous with “rules are made to be broken,” this proverb suggests that a little white lie and a little harmless stealing will lead to a smoother, easier life than avoiding these inevitabilities at all cost.

Context:

Originating in Slovenia, I discovered this proverb on the website ExpatFocus, on a page entitled “10 Unusual Proverbs from Around the World.”

Analysis:

I think this proverb is distinctly intriguing because it slightly contradicts the essential purpose of proverbs: to give resounding advice that suggests universal truths of the world. Instead, this proverb is almost meant to not be taken too seriously because it advocates criminal activity. It also holds a considerable amount of humor, in my opinion, which also could be argued it is a mix between a proverb and a folk joke. Typically, I do not come across humorous proverbs, so this one stood out to me because it is unique and incomparable to others.

 

Website Citation: For more references, visit the URL for other similarly unusual and unique proverbs with specified explanations and origins: https://www.expatfocus.com/c/aid=2408/articles/general/10-unusual-proverbs-from-around-the-world/

Proverbs

Cincinnati Proverb

The following was recorded from a conversation I had with a friend marked HL. I am marked CS. She shared with me a proverb she was told growing up from her Grandmother.

 

HL: “If you get on the bus to Cincinnati, don’t be surprised when you get to Cincinnati.”

CS: “And how would you translate this proverb?”

HL: “Basically, if you have sex outside of marriage and you’re not on the pill, don’t be surprised when you have a kid.”

CS: “Was this proverb said often in your house?”

HL: “So like my grandma used to say that to my mom when she was a teenager, and now that I’m getting older she says it to me. And of course my mom always says it to make fun of her.”

CS: “Do you think she really believes in that proverb?”

HL: “Yeah. 100%.”

CS: “Do you think you’ll tell your kids that saying?”

HL: “No. Only to give them more information about their great grandma. I’ve also never been to Cincinnati and don’t plan on it.”

 

Background:

HL is currently a freshman at the University of Southern California. She grew up in Mission Viejo, California in a family with a strong Catholic background.

Context:

An in person conversation at a local coffee shop.

 

Analysis:

What I found so fascinating about this proverb was merely that I completely misinterpreted it until HL further explained its meaning. Initially, I would have translated the proverb to simply being if you make a choice, or have a wish, don’t be surprised when that decision has consequences or the wish comes true. However, I was clearly way off from its actual meaning, or at least the meaning has for her family. I also found this proverb to be unique in the sense that I haven’t heard of a saying quite like that before that seems to have such a true-to-life and almost blunt, candid undertone.

Proverbs

Biblical Proverb

The following was recorded from a conversation I had with a friend marked HL. I am marked CS. She shared with me a proverb she was told growing up from her Grandmother.

 

HL: “My mom always told me a biblical proverb. It was ‘to he who much is given, much is expected.”

CS: “Can you explain to me what this proverb means?”

HL: “Well I was raised in a Christian home, and it reflects the environment I was surrounded by the way I was brought up. This proverb has religious context, obviously, and I think it’s from a specific passage from the Bible but I can’t remember. The proverb basically means that because God has given me so many gifts and talents, like I shouldn’t waste them, you know what I mean? Someone shouldn’t waste their talents that were gifted to them.”

CS: “Makes sense. So does all of your family agree with and follow this proverb?”

HL: “Yeah my mom told it to my brother and all almost throughout like our entire childhood.”

 

Background:

HL is currently a freshman at the University of Southern California. She grew up in Mission Viejo, California in a family with a strong Catholic background.

Context:

An in person conversation at a local coffee shop.

 

Analysis:

I enjoy this proverb, namely because it is so relevant to many other kids my age and sounds similar to some of the sayings my mom also told me growing up. I think it’s important for these proverbs to reflect one’s heritage or culture in that these are the values one’s parents are instilling into them. They are words to live by and hopefully pass down again one day.

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