USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk speech
Folk speech

Sumer Riddle

The ancient civilization Sumer is home to one of the earliest riddles known in existence.  The following is the first riddle recited by my old high school english teacher:

“There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

Answer: A school.

That’s why it’s my favorite”

Analysis: My old teacher said he first heard this riddle from another teacher at a school he used to teach at and has been teaching it to his students ever since.  I think riddles are extremely significant pieces of folklore because they make people think but are still lighthearted.  Riddles have had more cultural significance earlier in history when heroes would commonly be asked them in order to enter or pass through an area of some sort such as a temple.  Nowadays, people do not get asked or tell riddles as commonly, but it is not uncommon for people to still have to answer riddles to gain entry somewhere, like a password to a secret party.  For example, there is a riddle each member of my sorority must solve to gain entrance to our weekly chapter meetings.  Riddles are especially prevalent in schools where instructors are constantly trying to help their students gain knowledge by challenging them academically with something like a riddle.  I find this piece of folklore intriguing because the riddle by itself often accompanies a larger story involving key players such as who is asking the riddle and who is answering the riddle.  One can either choose to look at the whole story or simply analyze the riddle.

Folk speech

Dance Proverb

My informant SS is a 20-year-old girl of Jewish descent. She is very passionate about dance and participated on a dance team all throughout high school. In this piece, she describes a common saying to me (AK) that her dance coach attempted to instill in the minds of each girl on the team.

SS: From dance team we had the saying of: “Early is on time and on time is late.”

AK: So does this just mean you always had to be early?

SS: Kind of. At first it was annoying, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

AK: Does it have any significance to you or does it still apply to your life today?

SS: Definitely. It really sticks with me now. It’s a good life skill and saying I guess.

I found this proverb to be quite applicable to pretty much every facet of life. For me, this proverb is most applicable to things from my everyday life. For important events like interviews and tests, it is very easy to find the motivation to be on time because a lot is dependent on the event itself. However, for things like class and other day to day tasks, it is way harder to have the motivation to always be on time. For this reason, I try to abide by this proverb. It is certainly very difficult, but just the mindset of needing to be early allows me to show up on time. In a way, I still am “late”, but just this shift in mindset allows me to be traditionally “on time”.

folk simile
Folk speech

“Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh”

The following is from an interview between me and my friend, Carlos, at Blaze Pizza. Carlos is a Catholic missionary from Colombia. We were joined, as well, by another missionary named Nicole. Carlos shared with me a saying in Spanish.

Carlos: “We have a saying in Spanish that is, ‘Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh,’ which I’ve heard it all the time, which is used to make a reference to, like, when someone’s really lost. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s more lost than the son of Lindbergh.’ And I’ve never known why they said that, but um– So like, the saying is, ‘He is more lost than the son of Lindbergh.’ It’s just saying, like, when someone is really lost they can say, ‘Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh.’ I don’t know why, and I just looked it up, and apparently it’s connected to, like, this child abduction case in New Jersey, where, like, the son of Lindbergh was, like, abducted and was killed… and, like, I don’t know why we say that phrase in Spanish but it’s even in Wikipedia, like in Spanish there’s a saying that has this, I don’t know why.”

Me: “Where did you first hear this?”

Carlos: “My parents! Yeah, like, my family, everyone says that in Colombia. They just say, ‘Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh,’ which is awful!”

Like Carlos, I found the existence of this phrase to be quite odd. Because it’s not as if the saying exerts some kind of a warning, or uses the tale of the New Jersey boy to teach children a lesson, making it a proverb. Instead, it’s just this comparison. This made me wonder if perhaps this saying was actually dark humor, but I’m not entirely sure.

Folk speech

“Más vale pájaro en mano que cientos volando”

The following is from an interview between me and my friend, Carlos, at Blaze Pizza. Carlos is a Catholic missionary from Colombia. We were joined, as well, by another missionary named Nicole. Carlos shared with me some Spanish proverbs. This is one of them.

Carlos: “In Spanish, it’s, ‘Más vale pájaro en mano que cientos volando’. What that means is that, ‘A bird in your hand is worth more than a hundred birds flying away.’

Me: “Oh, okay, so kind of like ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’?”

Carlos: “I guess. I’ve never heard of that, but… (Laughs). Yeah, but I think I know… if it means what I think it means then yes.”

Nicole: “What does that mean?”

Carlos: “It means that, like, it’s better to have one solid thing than to have, like, many things kind of up in the air.”

Me: “Yeah that’s like ‘Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. Uh, and where did you hear that from?”

Carlos: “Uh, my mom. We just say it all the time. And my parents just say it like, yeah.”

I was immediately struck by the fact that Spanish and English have two proverbs that are so similar to each other. It is interesting that the Spanish one is more embellished with its one-hundred instead of two birds, as well as the fact that the birds are instead flying away, and just out of the person in question’s reach, whereas in the English proverb the birds are concealed from sight by the bush.

Folk speech

“El mucho abarca poco aprieta”

The following is from an interview between me and my friend, Carlos, at Blaze Pizza. Carlos is a Catholic missionary from Colombia. We were joined, as well, by another missionary named Nicole. Carlos shared with me some Spanish proverbs. This is one of them.

Carlos: “Then we have, ‘El mucho abarca poco aprieta,’ which means ‘Him who, like– him who has, like– is holding lots of things is unable to, like– is less able to hug it tight.’ So, he who is holding so much is able to, like, carry it less. So it means… the more you have, the less you actually, like, do it well, or carry it well.”

I found this proverb very relatable as a college student. The more things you try to do, you just end up spreading yourself too thin, and you can’t devote enough attention to any one thing. Becoming fragmented is a cross-cultural problem for those who wish to work hard.

Folk speech

“Camaron que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente”

The following is taken from an interview between me and my friend, Javier, who is from Nicaragua. We were sitting in the lobby of the Caruso Catholic Center. He decided to tell me about a certain Spanish saying.

Javier: “Okay, so there is this saying or, like, not proverb but, like, saying that goes, ‘Camaron que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente,’ which basically means, ‘the shrimp who falls asleep… uh, at the seashore get to the ocean…? Wait, what’s a seashore? How do you call that, uh…?”

Me: “Like the tide?”

Javier: “You know how, like the waves come and then leave…”

Me: “Yeah, yeah like the tide.”

Javier: “Yeah, that, yeah, ‘…then the tide will take it to the ocean.’ So it basically means that, um, like whoever, like, goes in life and not being like, um…like awake to, like, whatever is happening, like, surrounds them, or who is, like, not on top of, like, their work or so, then if they, like, took a lot of time and they just, like, fall asleep and, like, fall behind and stuff, then… the… the thing– what’s it called?”

Me: “The tide?”

Javier: “Then the tide (laughs) will, uh, yeah…will, like… yeah, will get them and then they won’t be able to, like, get their work done right.”

Me: “Okay, cool, who told you that one?”

Javier: “Uh… yeah I definitely– probably some– oh, probably, like, some, like, teachers back in high– back in middle school.”

Me: “To get you to work harder?”

Javier: “Yeah, yeah. Actually, I remember, like, there was, like, a class full of sayings and so, and then, like, what would you… how would you, like, interpret them or so.”

This saying is definitely a relatable one and a fair warning for anyone overwhelmed by school work. I wish I had heard this saying before I turned this entry in late for an assignment. Oh wait, I did…

Folk speech

“Indio comido, puedo al camino”

The following is taken from an interview between me and my friend, Javier, who is from Nicaragua. We were sitting in the lobby of the Caruso Catholic Center. He decided to tell me about a certain Spanish saying.

Javier: “Yeah, so this other saying is called, ‘Indio comido, puedo al camino,’ which translates to… ‘Eaten (laughs) Indian, walking Indian.'”

Me: (laughs) “Wait, sorry, repeat that?”

Javier: “So, um, ‘Indio comido, puedo al camino,’ which means, ‘Eaten Indian, walking Indian.’

Me: “Indian? Like, Native American?”

Javier: “Uh… (laughs) yes.”

Me: (laughs) “Okay, do you know what that’s supposed to mean?”

Javier: “Yeah, it just means that, um, like, like after, like, uh, a worker, like, on the fields or… a farm worker, as soon as, like, they’re, like, finished, like, their meal, like, let’s say lunch or so, like they’re ready to go back to work. Like, as soon as they finish eating, then they can go to work.”

Me: “Oh, okay, cool, so, like, the ‘Indian’ in the phrase is, like, the worker?”

Javier: “Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So, back home, in Nicaragua, it isn’t like Native American Indians but, like, people who, like, live, like, in the… like, in the fields or like… not in the suburbs… or… like, naan fields and stuff. Like, they are called Indians, too. That’s, like, how we translate that.”

Me: “Gotchya. Um, who first told you that one?”

Javier: “Uh, probably my dad. Or, actually my grandpa probably. He–he, like, he has this, um, huge, like… coffee crops. So, he works with a lot of, like, these people. These are, like, mainly the people who work for, like, farms and so. So, yeah.”

It was very interesting to me that the word “Indian” became the term in Nicaragua to define farm workers. I’m not sure where this translated from, or even if it had any connection to Native Americans or people living in India. It doesn’t seem like anyone considers it to be derogatory in this context, so the origins are a mystery to me.

Folk speech

“En guerra avisada no muere soldado”

The following is an interview between me and my friend, Edgar, while he was practicing piano over at the Caruso Catholic Center. He told me about a proverb he knew from Nicaragua.

Edgar: “En guerra avisada no muere soldado,” and this literally means… it literally means ‘If you know about the war, soldiers are not gonna die,’ If you know war is coming, right? If you know someone’s about to attack you, soldiers are not gonna die. that’s pretty much it. And, that’s just from many things, but the one that I heard it the most is from my professor, you know. He would– my professor would go, ‘Okay, so you guys have a quiz on so-and-so day, you have to study this and this and that… ‘En guerra avisada no muere soldado.” which pretty much means… I told you when it’s coming! Be prepared for it. So that would be… that’s probably the most common, like, way to hear about it, I guess.”

Me: “A professor in Nicaragua?”

Edgar: “Yeah. Just saying, like, be ready for the test.”

Edgar’s explanation of how his teacher utilized this proverb came as a surprise to me, as upon first hearing it, I just thought of it as pertaining to actual war. But I guess that’s why it became so widely circulated is due to its capability to relate to multiple situations.


American Proveb

Informant: My friend, her mom would tell her this who is from the midwest

Original Script:  ‘A watched pot never boils’

Background: The meaning behind this is if you stay on top of your life, you won’t loose control.

Thoughts: I have never heard this proverb but it encourages self-reliance and accountability and in American we highly regard these traits, so it makes sense that it is well known in America.


The Difference Between God and A Surgeon

The informant is a junior at USC from Chicago, Illinois studying dentistry.

After a discussion of the meaning and purpose of folklore I asked him if he knew of any folk practices or sayings related to his profession. We arrived at this question because he comes from a family of dental practitioners. He has been shadowing various oral surgeons over the past year and described an incident that occurred over the past summer.

He was shadowing a successful oral surgeon in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. He was observing his first intense oral surgery as it was occurring.

Mid surgery, the surgeon whom he was shadowing looked up and recited the following:

Do you know what the difference between God and a surgeon is?

(After a pause) God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.

He couldn’t help but break into a fit of laughter as the surgeon returned to his procedure.


This is an interesting little joke that is variously ascribed to a variety of high skill professions such as lawyers and pilots as well. There’s an interesting duality here in that a high level of intelligence, skill, and grit is necessary to become a surgeon, and yet of course there are problems in thinking so highly of oneself. Thus, I sense a bit of ambivalence in the joke that is highly contextual. For example, if the surgeon performs a high-risk surgery correctly and says the joke, there’s a bit of pride in the sense of peril and gamble that the surgeon competed against. On the other hand, if the surgery were to fail and the joke be told (rare or strange, of course), the attention would then shift to the absurdity of such risk, of the sense of avoiding the unavoidable failure and the conceit latent in thinking so. Beyond this startling ambiguity, there’s also a sense of science superseding faith. The surgeon steps in and saves a life when there is no hope, thus affirming his or her self as a miracle of science is performed.