USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk speech
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
Musical

Shed: Jazz lingo

Context:

The informant – AB – is a 20-year-old white male and is a sophomore at the USC Thornton School studying Jazz Guitar. The following excerpts/quotes are from a conversation with AB and some other jazz majors during the break of a music industry class. After class, I asked him to explain some of the jazz lingo that took place during the prior conversation. The conversation from which the quotes were taken was the most natural context possible, as the students – all jazz musicians – were simply having a conversation, and I was taking note of their use of lingo. Asking AB to explain the lingo after, he knew he was explaining to the readers of the collection and not to me, since he knows that I myself am a jazz major and am familiar with the slang.

 

Piece:

AB/Other students: “Yo, have you shed for your jury yet?”

“I’m gonna be hitting the shed all weekend, I haven’t even started learning my transcription.”

“Have you shed this Herbie Hancock album, The New Standard?”

Me (after class): In our conversation earlier, I heard the word “shed” come up a lot. What does that mean in this context?

AB: Umm, shed just means, like to practice something or check something out. Like if I say, “shed my scales,” it means “practice my scales,” or if I say “I’ve been shedding this album,” it means I’ve been listening to that album a lot.

Me: Do you know where this slang comes from?

AB: There’s a story that… ah fuck who is it…? I think Charlie Parker…? locked himself in a woodshed for months to practice after folding hard at a jam session. So some people say “hit the woodshed,” but most people just say, “hit the shed,” or just, “shed.”

 

Analysis:

As a jazz major myself, I know that the idea of holing up and practicing for hours, or even days, is highly romanticized. People often brag about how much they’ve been “shedding,” and there are a lot of legends and stories about the countless hours that the most famous jazz giants spent practicing without any social contact. Slang within any clique is a way of creating an exclusionary environment. Knowing and using jazz lingo that non-jazz musicians don’t understand creates a feeling of unity and cohesiveness within the community, as does the slang of any social group.

 

Folk speech
Musical

Vibe: Jazz slang

Context:

 

The informant – AB – is a 20-year-old white male and is a sophomore at the USC Thornton School studying Jazz Guitar. The following excerpts/quotes are from a conversation with AB and some other jazz majors during the break of a music industry class. After class, I asked him to explain some of the jazz lingo that took place during the prior conversation. The conversation from which the quotes were taken was the most natural context possible, as the students – all jazz musicians – were simply having a conversation, and I was taking note of their use of lingo. Asking AB to explain the lingo after, he knew he was explaining to the readers of the collection and not to me, since he knows that I myself am a jazz major and am familiar with the slang.

 

Piece:

AB/Other students: “Peter vibed me soo hard in my lesson the other day for not having my transcription written out.”

“Man, Aaron is super killing but he’s such a vibe.”

“I was at the mint jam session last night… It was hosted by the Monk Institute cats… I basically got vibed off the stage haha… it was dark.”

“The red vest over a t-shirt… that could be a vibe!”

Me (after class): I keep hearing the word “vibe” pop up in jazz conversation. Could you explain what that means?

AB: Sure. It’s kinda hard to explain. It pretty much means to condescend someone at a jam session, but it’s used pretty loosely now, like it doesn’t need to be exclusively in a musical context. Or if someone “is a vibe,” that means that they’re kind of a dick.

Me: That’s interesting, since most people say vibe to mean, like, positive vibes.

AB: Yeah, and it could mean that too. Like saying that something is a vibe could also mean that it’s hip. It depends on the context I guess.

 

Analysis:

As a jazz musician myself, I know from experience that “vibing” at jam sessions is a pretty big part of jazz culture. Jazz culture is very elitist, and jazz musicians like to maintain the somewhat cutthroat environment that you hear about in old jazz stories. Condescending people at jam sessions and letting people know that you know you’re better than them is one of the primary ways that this dynamic is maintained. Further, slang within any clique is a way of creating an exclusionary environment. Knowing and using jazz lingo that non-jazz musicians don’t understand creates a feeling of unity and cohesiveness within the community, as does the slang of any social group.

 

Folk speech
Legends
Musical

Jo Jones Cymbal Story

Context:

The informant – N – is a 20-year-old white male, born and raised in Los Angeles. He is currently a sophomore at the USC Thornton School of Music studying jazz drum set. He is my roommate and one of my closest friends. Because N has studied jazz for a long time and currently studies under jazz legend, Peter Erskine, I asked him if there were any legends or stories that he’s heard that could be considered jazz folklore.

Piece:

N: Well, I think the most classic jazz legend is the story of when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head during a jam session. The story goes, a sixteen-year-old Charlie Parker shows up to a jam session where Jo Jones is part of the house band. Charlie Parker’s been shedding a bunch of “groundbreaking” hip harmony shit (said sarcastically), but when he goes up to the band stand, he folds on the changes and loses the form. Then, apparently, Jo Jones stopped playing in the middle of the tune and threw a cymbal at Parker’s head. Parker left the jam session, swearing that he’d be back. And apparently that’s what motivated him to lock himself in the woodshed for a year, and that’s why he’s such a legend now.

Me: Do you think that story really happened?

N: Well the movie Whiplash made that version of the story famous, but I’ve heard versions where he just threw the cymbal at his feet, or where he threw his stick bag at him, and the whole audience laughed. I’m sure some version of the story probably happened, but I doubt it’s as dramatic as everyone says.

Me: Why do you think the story has gained so much popularity?

N: I think probably because of Whiplash mainly. And since it’s so dramatic, people always love the stories that make the old cats seem badass.

Analysis:

In addition to its inclusion in Whiplash, I think this legend is likely so popular because it provides lore to the elitist and cutthroat atmosphere of jazz culture. I think it’s a legend that band directors will tell students to ensure that they practice sufficiently before going to jam sessions. Also, it’s a nice story of someone letting an embarrassing situation motivate them, acting as a catalyst for them becoming a legend. I also think it’s interesting that N sarcastically referred to young Charlie Parker as groundbreaking, seemingly implying that the music has come so far since then that it’s humorous to think of Parker’s bebop playing as groundbreaking.

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.

Childhood
Folk speech
general
Humor
Narrative

Alouette: French Nursery Rhyme

Context CW, with a mug of hot tea sits, on my couch after an afternoon of doing homework and recounts stories from their childhood CW was raised French and attended a French immersion school. The atmosphere is calm, the air is calm and the room is mostly quiet in between stories.
———————————————————————————————————————Background: CW learned Alouette in preschool, from their teachers. It’s meaning is rooted in a nostalgic warmth for their youth, also they think the song is “pretty cute I guess, but it’s kinda fucked up”. CW doesn’t necessarily like it so much as believes it is very deeply ingrained in their person.

Performance:

CW: Alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais la tête/ je te plumerais la tête/ et la tête et la tête/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais le bec/ je te plumerais le bec/ et le bec et la tête/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais le cou/ je te plumerais le cou/ et le cou et le bec/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais les ailes/ je te plumerais les ailes/ et les ailes et le cou/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais/ je te plumerais le dos/ je te plumerais le dos/ et le dos et les ailes/ alouette alouette/ alouette gentille alouette/ alouette je te plumerais
———————————————————————————————————————

Translation

Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your head/ let me pluck your head/ and your head and your head/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your beak/ let me pluck your beak/ and your beak and your head/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your neck/ let me pluck your neck/ and your neck and your beak/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your wings/ let me pluck your wings/ and your wings and your neck/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/Lark, nice lark/ Let me pluck you lark/ let me pluck your back/ let me pluck your back/ and your back and your wing/ lark lark/ lark nice lark/ let me pluck you lark/

———————————————————————————————————————
Analysis: The song is something of a memory game, that used to teach children in France new words like neck, back, beak, and head. Much like the hokey pokey, this song serves the dual purpose of keeping children occupied and teaching them the language to express the parts of their own body. The song appears in lists across the internet like “5 Magical Songs For Teaching French To Preschoolers” indicating that as globalization has spread the ability to teach and learn language so too has this element of folklore spread into countries where French isn’t the dominant language to serve as a teaching tool. The way the song burrows its way into the mind of the performer too allows for its performance to gain meaning as a cultural object, the knowing of Alouette, a marker of exposure to French culture and a way to connect with other people

Customs
Folk speech
general
Initiations
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” Swearing-In

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” Swearing-In

The following informant is a 21 year-old student from California, currently residing in Los Angeles and studying at the University of Southern California. They have been a part of the weekly cast of Los Angeles’ “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” tradition for at least a year. Here, they are describing a the swearing-in of new members of the community; they will be identified as Z.

Z: At the beginning, it’s like “Raise your right hand, or the hand you masturbate with,” and then people would raise both their hands, “and repeat after me,” and everyone says “after me! after me! after me!”

And then the chant is, “I state your name, pledge allegiance to the lips of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ And to the decadence, for which they stand, one nation, under Richard O’Brien, on top of Patricia Quinn, with sensual daydreams, erotic nightmares, and sins of the flesh for them all.” That’s like the induction speech, or whatever. It’s a lot.

Context

The informant is my roommate, and I am friends with this individual. This bit was told to me in our room. They have been a part of the cast of the Santa Monica weekly performance of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for at least a year, but have attended the performance for a longer period of time.

My Thoughts

There are layers to this tradition. First off, it is lampooning the swearing in process that is typically held in judicial or political office. While this jokingly places the “induction ceremony” in a substantially more serious light than it rightfully deserves, there is no doubt that this film has become a sort of folklore, and acts as a canon for this community of “followers,” who have clearly come up with their own traditions, jokes, and beliefs as they relate to the film (genres of meta-folklore).

They are also, in ways, playing with the long-used term of “cult following” regarding “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” almost reclaiming the idea of a cult. In my opinion, it is a means of waving goodbye to the already-there establishment, and creating their own “legitimized” community — this is consonant with the overall tone of the film itself.

To read more on this topic, feel free to read:

Tyson, Christy, et al. “Our Readers Write: What Is the Significance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show? Why Do Kids Keep Going to It?” The English Journal, vol. 69, no. 7, 1980, pp.60–62. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/817417.

 

Folk speech
Riddle

Friday Riddle

Text: Question: A man goes to town on Friday. He stays for three days, then leaves on Friday. How is this possible?

Answer: The horse’s name is Friday.

Context: AA is a student at the University of Southern California studying Business. During the summers when she was in high school, she used to be a camp counselor. People used to tell her this riddle at school when she was a kid. When she went to work as a camp counselor, the kids were telling me this riddle, and it reminded her of being a kid. The following folkloric performance took place in class.

Interpretation: Riddles are not as big in US compared to other parts of the world, and they tend to be seen as an exclusively kid genre. In some societies around the world, riddles can be held in high regard. In some places, for example, you can substitute physical fighting with a riddle contes, or use riddles in part of a marriage ceremonies as a way to test your future son-in-law. The above example of a riddle, however, is mostly known among children, as the way that AA was reintroduced to the riddle at camp is explained above. Riddles, at times, are not popular among adults in our society because adults tend to think our language is fixed, when kids are more flexible to the idea of thinking outside the box. This riddle holds true to providing the essential function of testing the bounds of language capabilities.

AA’s riddle is considered a true riddle. True riddles propose a challenge, and you should be able to follow the clues to reach the answer. Traditional questions and answer structure is employed, as well as specific phrasing along the lines of, “When is A not A?” or “When is A B?” They propose a solution to a seemingly impossible question and generate an apparent “magical transformation” of the language. In terms of the riddle above, if thinking inside the box, it is impossible to enter and leave town on the same day of the week without only staying 1 day or all 7 days (or multiples thereof). However, when considering that prepositions such as “on” can indicate varied states, and that the proper noun “Friday” can be more than just a day of the week, and answer is discovered and the riddle is solved.

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