USC Digital Folklore Archives / Gestures

Gesture: “Sí T’Ancagliu”

Main Piece: “So, also in Italy, I noticed that when someone feels intense…um…either love or fear or…um…trying to control themselves, they take their index finger, they bend it, and they put it in their mouth and they bite it. It amazed me that they’d hurt themsleves in order to control themselves.”

Background: The informant, who grew up in Italy, would see this most often in the context of her friend group. It was common to perform this gesture when wanting to regulate an emotion. The informant noted that it was important that this gesture was done by the individual, not another person, because this illustrates the indpendence of emotional regulation. When asked why one would bite the index finger, rather than another finger, the informant responded that it might be because the index finger is the most prominent and most used.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: It seems, to me, that this gesture is one of autonomy and control. The informant notes that the index finger is a significant component of this gesture since it is the most commonly used finger. The biting of this important, useful finger indicates a sort of punishing and masochistic approach to emotion. I wonder if this gesture is a means of inhibiting the emotion, rather than regulation. Oftentimes, it is culturally unacceptable to show emotion, so this gesture may be a reflection of the stigma of emotional expression.


Gesture: “Delicious”

Main Piece: “So, when an Italian loves something he or she’s eating, they…um…express satisfaction by taking their index finger [laughs] and putting it at their cheek and going like this [motions twisting of index finger on cheek and puckering lips]. And that’s supposed to show how much they think what they’re eating is delicious.”

Background: The informant noticed this gesture among family and friends eating a meal. She enjoys this gesture because it’s so unfamiliar in comparison to an American gesture of satisfaction. Instead of rubbing our bellies or smacking our lips, the informant notes, “it is mistifying why we would point to our cheeks, but also makes sense since we eat with our mouths.” This gesture is recognized as a huge compliment to whoever made the meal and is also a way of connecting with the other members of the table eating the meal.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I am somewhat familiar with the importance and value of cooking and sharing a meal in Italy; preparing the dishe(s), inviting the guests, and sharing the meal are all important components of the gathering. The informant’s comparison of an American gesture of satisfaction versus an Italian’s, touches upon the subtlty of Italian expression. Rather than a loud (perhaps rude) smacking of the lips or shameless rubbing of the stomach, the Italian gesture is more subdued. The complimentary aspect of the gesture places value on the meal and the company one shares the meal with. The gesture was informally inherited by the informant in a social context. Although she only uses it when surrounded by people who understand it or use it themselves, she remembers it as a significant piece of folklore.

Folk speech

Handgame: Miss Suzy

Main Piece: (sung) “Miss Suzy had a baby/ she named him Tiny Tim/ she put him in the bathtub/ to see if he could swim/ he drank up all the water/ he ate up all the soap/ he tried to eat the bathtub/ but it wouldn’t go down his throat (giggles)/ miss Suzy called the doctor/ miss Suzy called the nurse/ miss Suzy called the lady/ with the alligator purse….uhhhh…..oh yeah ok….measles said the doctor/ mumps said the nurse… haha that’s terrible… pizza said the lady/ with the alligator purse.”

Background: The informant initially learned this handgame on the playground in elementary school from her friends. The piece would be performed on the playground during recess or occasionally in the hallway. The informant finds the piece entertaining and humorous. She remembers learning the song and finding it all so random, making little sense. This piece is sung while playing a handgame, a repetitive motion between partners clapping their hands together. The informant says this is usually performed between two young girls. She says it was a popular song among the group of girls she atteneded elementary school with. The game would become more advanced as it would speed up and test who could keep up.

Performance Context: I sat across the informant in my living room as she told me the piece.

My Thoughts: This handgame seems to be utilized as a way of defining in-group versus out-group members (i.e. as the game advances, less and less participants are included). The rhyme itself, as the informant contends, does not completely make sense. Its lyrics are a bit morbid, but is sung in a child-like tune, and is best known in the context of an elementary school playground. The informant alludes to the ways in which childhood folklore can be somewhat explicit, exploring themes of adulthood (i.e. morbidity, illness, death). Although the lyrics of the handgame are somehwat grave, the informant was an innocent receiver and teller and enjoyed participating in the folklore.


Gesture: “Occhio”

Main Piece: “When Italians want to point out cleverness, they use a gesture rather than words. They take their finger and they pull down on the bottom of their eye, which opens the eye more, and that indicates that this person is clever in the sense that they are sly. There’s another way…I’m not positive…to pull the cheek down to open the eye.”

Background: The informant would often see this gesture when people would try to speak about another person without using words. According to the informant, instead of verbally communicating, a physical gesture is used because it is universal and non-confrontational. This gesture isn’t always used as a compliment, it can be a mark of dissaproval. This gesture is done to another person, communicating this thought of cleverness about the other.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: Using a physical gesture as a medium of foklore is a noteworthy method of communication. Its physical nature, rather than verbal, can be comprehended universally, as the informant noted. The opening of the eye seems to be a watchful, all-knowing way of letting the receiver know his/her slyness is recognized. Although this gesture may not mean the same things in a variation of contexts, the eye is the watcher, the giver of sight and truth. It is also interesting that this mark of cleverness is not always a compliment. Being sly versus being clever is a mark of acceptable versus unacceptable.

For further reference see: for alternative explanation of the gesture.


Gesture: Evil Eye

Main Piece: “In Italy, my experiences…bad things happening to me meant that I watched what people did when they wanted to ward off the evil eye. A common gesture is to make this sign [index and pinky finger are raised with other fingers tucked in. Hand "pokes"or "stabs" the air].”

Background: The informant learned this gesture by watching people perform it. The informant grew up in Rome and it seemed important to the informant because Italians are typically a Catholic/Christian population, so it seemed pagan to her that the devil would be warded off by a hand gesture. The informant sees this gesture as a different way of approaching ill fortune in the absence of religion. She noticed, growing up, that Italians are very expressive with their hands, so this gesture was significant.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I find it interesting that the informant’s interpretation of this gesture was to “ward off” the evil eye. I’ve heard of the evil eye in a different context (in Israel) and it is used quite differently. In Israel, the evil eye is an object, usually a glass medallion which resembles the eye, hung in a common space (such as a home or a car) to ward off evil. The informant interprets the evil eye as what should be warded off. I find the gesture interesting as well. Its symbol and movement appear threatening, as the fingers point in the opposite direction of the individual with his/her fingers pointing outwards and moving in an abrupt, sudden way. It seems that, for this group, the way to ward off threat is to be threatening themselves. The gesture was something that was picked up by the informant. Rather than an oral medium of passing down folklore, the informant adopted the gesture in a social context of learning.

Old age

The Traditional Kenyan Greeting

“When you greet someone who you consider reputable or older than you, you greet them by shaking their hands with both of your hands. You keep on holding on until they acknowledge you and say thank you. Usually, you do it with people you don’t talk to every day, like the parents of your friends.”

In Kenya, it is traditional to shake another’s hands with both of your own hands when greeting an elder or a person of high status. Because the other person is meant to have the control, it is they who decide how long the handshake should last. You are only supposed to let go after you have been acknowledged.

The informant, Alastair Odhiambo, is a 19-year-old international student who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. Alistair and his family have deep roots in the country, so he is confident that he knows a great deal about Kenyan folklore. Although Alastair does not remember who taught him how to properly shake an elder’s hand, he does know that he picked it up after observing how other Kenyan children interacted with their superiors. He claims that Kenya has long valued respecting elders, so this tradition is only a reflection of that belief.

It is always interesting to see how ancient values and beliefs are still maintained in today’s modern culture. Even though it may not seem like much, the way young Kenyans shake the hands of their elders says a lot about the country and what they believe in. It reveals that all elders and people of high status must be treated with honor and respect. The fact that Alastair was able to learn this common practice simply by observing others tells us that it is popular and that it is used quite often.








“You’d say is-they-alethes (spelling uncertain), I’m not sure what that means, but it’s Greek, and I think it means in the bonds. And you’d take the person’s hand and give it three pulses. And I was the marshal in the house, which is kind of like the parliamentarian, so I would stand at the front of the house and give everyone the handshake when they came in. And everybody would have to say is they- alethes (spelling uncertain) and shake my hand and that was kind of funny and then the president would say sister marshal are the chapter rooms secure? And I would say yes they are secure and then we would close chapter doors and we would have our meeting. And you learned the handshake after you pledged, and you learned the saying and the traditions. And it was a way of letting us know you were in the sorority.”

Informant: The informant is a mother of three currently living in Dallas, Texas, to where she moved from Chicago at the age of three. She attended the University of Texas at Austin, and was a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority. She graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising and has lived in Dallas ever since. She has a younger brother and a younger sister.


This ritual is an example of folklore that distinguishes those within the sorority from those not in the sorority. As a sisterhood, sororities have many traditions and rituals that only members are allowed to know. The sisterhood can only be entered if a girl decides to go through recruitment and mutually selects the house. Upon this selection, the girl can enter the sisterhood. Many rituals are taught to the girls, but this specific one is interesting because it is similar to the secret handshakes that children would come up with for their best friends. When children are younger, they often come up with handshakes so as to distinguish the special bond of friendship that they have. In accordance with this, the delta delta delta sorority, or Tri Delta sorority has instituted their own handshake as a way to determine whether or not someone is in the sorority. As they like to keep their meetings secret and only giving information to those within the sorority, the handshake is their way of determining membership upon their entrance to the meetings. The marshal is the job held by the person who determines this, and therefore keeps any outsiders from entering the meetings. This is a way to ensure that this sisterhood remains intact and keeps those who are within separated from those who are not. The saying that goes with the handshake re-affirms this as well.

Folk speech

Bang Bang Choo Choo Train (Cheer)

(Acting out the whole thing, had to recall it)

Stop don’t talk to me loser lame-o wannabe
Like oh totally t-totally
Rainfall waterfall girl you think you got it all
But you don’t I do so boom with that attitude
Bang bang choo choo train wind me up
I’ll do that thing bang bang choo choo train
Wind me up I’ll do that thing.
Reeses Pieces butter cups you mess with me I’ll mess you up
Loser whatever get that picture. Word. (that’s what people say)


THE INFORMANT: Ruby is ten and says she learned this chant in 3rd grade. Everyone in her grade knows it but only the girls act it out because she says the boys are too embarrassed.

ANALYSIS: Some research on this chant, because I remember the “bang bang choo choo train” part but not the rest, has shown that this rhyme / cheer has been around in some form or another since as far back as 1902, with many variations along the timeline. It is often used as a cheer for young girls to perform as cheerleaders or dancers, and has historically been controversial because some versions of it use more sexualized language than parents think is appropriate for their children to perform to. However, the language used in Ruby’s version shows the large differences between the different versions of this cheer from school to school and over time, where only the “bang bang choo choo train” part is still intact.

Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Baseball Superstitions

  1. My friend was on the baseball team when he was in high school. When he played, he would walk onto the field with a mouthful of water and spit it out onto the field, from both sides of his mouth. This would be before it was his turn to bat or to pitch. He believed that doing this would ensure he would do well in that game. He actually had heard about this superstition from a fellow teammate that would always do this as well during their games.
  2. My friend had first heard about this superstition from a fellow teammate. He noticed his teammate performing this superstition one day during one of their games. He had asked them why they did this, and what exactly they were doing. Since that teammate had been one of the best players on their team, my friend believed that this ritual must have been part of the reason why he was so good. So, he started doing the same ritual during their games.
  3. Many sports have rituals such as this that athletes like to perform and even customize to some extent. These rituals can be shared amongst fellow teammates, or kept personal depending on that athlete’s belief towards their ritual; like will the ritual still be effective if it is shared with others or not.
  4. When I was in track and field in high school, we had interesting superstitions and rituals like this that some of my teammates liked to do. I believed that they were effective in their own way, maybe through the Placebo Effect, but not necessarily due to their own power. I tried some of the superstitions as well before my races and I noticed that some seemed to work for me, but I definitely due think that must have been due to other factors.

*For other versions of this superstition, and one’s like it, see:

“The Craziest Superstitions of Baseball Players.” : JUGS Sports. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016. <>.

Folk Beliefs

Splitting the Pole

JN is a 19 year old neuroscience major. She’s from Chicago originally, but she moved to California for college. In the following conversation, we talked about a small ritual that is very special to her and the importance of maintaining friendships:
“So this is a superstition that I have been practicing pretty religiously, I guess.
So I have this weird superstition that if you’re walking with a friend and you come across a pole in the way- and doesn’t matter if you’re holding hands- you are not allowed to go on either side of the pole. So for example, one person can’t go to the right side of the pole and one person can’t go to the left of the pole. Basically, you can’t let yourself get separated from the other person, or else that means that your friendship will grow apart. If that does happen, then the only way you can keep from damaging your friendship is to shake hands after. A lot of my friends don’t realize that, and I kind of freak out and make them shake hands with me! They don’t understand why I do it, but it’s just because I don’t want our relationship to grow apart and I want to stay friends with them.”

Who did you learn this from?
“I can’t remember. I think I learned it from a friend and thought it was really good, that it was something that I should definitely be doing. So I started immediately. I can’t even remember who taught me but it’s something I’ve done for sure since the start of college. I don’t think I learned it before that.”

Why is this ritual so important to you? What does it mean to you?

It is important to me because, even though it seems stupid sometimes, I don’t want to grow apart from my friends so I’d rather be safe than sorry!


My thoughts: In this folk belief, there is a connection drawn between physical distancing and emotional distancing. The splitting around the pole and the handshake after  is reminiscent of the concept of “homeopathic magic” proposed by James George Frazer- that a physical action that resembles another will end up causing it. It’s also noted by the informant that sometimes other people don’t accept/are confused by her belief – perhaps this shows that “superstition” now has a negative connotation and less people are willing to admit that they believe in them.