USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk speech
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.


 

Customs
Folk speech

The SoCal Spell Out

Context & Analysis

The subject and I were eating lunch together and I asked him to tell me about some of his experiences at USC; particularly, I asked him if he knew of any strong traditions at USC (aside from the obvious ‘Fight On’). The subject is a member of the USC Triathlon team and is very active and involved on the team. He proceeded to tell me about this particular tradition he enjoys on the Tri team, which is also a tradition shared by many other USC sports teams.

Main Piece

“My favorite tradition is, like, the SoCal spell out, and it’s basically a lot of things that I think, like, USC athletic teams do here. It just consists of basically spelling out “Southern California”, like, really quickly and really loudly and then just, like, erupting in cheer at the very end. That actually is, like, really really fun to do and a good tradition to have, plus it also fills you up with adrenaline. So that’s a tradition that we have.”

Folk speech
Humor

“Dark in Here!”

Context & Analysis

The subject is a BFA in USC’s School of Dramatic Arts Acting program, which is extremely competitive. I asked him if he knew of any theater traditions or sayings specific to USC’s theater program. I included the full dialogue of our conversation below for clarity.

Main Piece

Subject: ‘Dark in here’ is a big one for the BFA’s. Any time the lights turn off someone just has to go ‘Dark in here!”

Me: What’s the context of that?
Subject: It was a line in a scene and we—Mary Jo probably made them do that line for an hour straight.

Me: Who’s Mary Jo?

Subject: Mary Jo Negro is the head of undergraduate acting at USC, she’s our acting professor, she’s the one that cuts us [laughs]

Me: So what play was it taken from?

Subject: It’s a 10-minute play called ‘Tape’. It’s very bad. [laughs]

Me: So why did it become a saying within the BFA’s?

Subject: Uh, because we’re the ones that had to run through it for an hour—it was just that line. And so then every time the lights turn off we’d have to go ‘Dark in here!’—so the lights turn off and he [the main character] goes ‘Dark in here” and so now any time any professor ever turns the lights off somebody goes “Dark in here” and I hate it [laughs].

Folk speech
Gestures
Humor
Kinesthetic

Chinoisms: Sleep

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!”

The subject’s mother’s response is cheeky and plays upon the pun created in the phrasing “How did you sleep?”. The question is rather contextual; if the question is taken literally (like how the subject’s mother does) it is results in a humorous answer.his reminded me a lot of classic “dad jokes”, or jokes that give literal responses to questions often with the purpose of irritating their children for a humorous result. The subject’s re-enactment of her mother’s gesture is also an important part of re-creating the joke, as the punchline of the joke is delivered physically rather than verbally.

Main Piece

“Almost religiously whenever my mom is asked “How did you sleep?’ she says “Like this!” and then she puts her hands next to her face, and, um, tilts to the side like she’s sleeping. [The subject put her hands in a prayer pose on the left side of her face like she’s sleeping on a pillow and tilts her head slightly].

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.”

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 metaphor
Folk speech
Humor

Arizona Desert Metaphor

Subject: Folk expression.

Collection: “It’s hotter than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut.”

Background Info: K. Cowdery is 21 years old and a junior Narrative Studies major at the University of Southern California. She grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and now resides in Los Angeles where she attends school.

Context: My friend shared this piece of folklore while joking about odd things the generation over than us say. She heard this from her father’s friend (who is in his late 50’s) and is a cattle rancher. Essentially, in the desert after it rains, the cars and wagons make deep ruts in the road that then harden and crack once the weather gets warm again. Since the ruts get hotter than the surrounding area, snakes like to lay down in the rut to get warm. Since a snake’s butt is located on their stomach is, they are absorbing the heat from the rut and surrounding dessert through their butt.

Analysis: This metaphor capitalizes on a knowledge of and interaction with desert weather and the fauna that calls it home. While someone not from the desert can understand that the simile is used to communicate that it is hot outside, only people who have experienced and forced to live in this kind of heat can call upon a sense memory of Arizona summers where temperatures have been recorded about 110 degrees, giving it extra meaning to those from this specific place. It is logical that the expression is used by cattle ranchers because their occupation requires them to spend a lot of time outside in the elements, encountering both heat and snakes. For those most familiar with these elements of the desert landscape, this phrase allows them to relate about the oppressive conditions of their home, strengthening a sense of belonging to the place and defining what it means to be of that place. Lastly, the metaphor includes an element of humor for the teller and the listener, using the amusing nature of the metaphor to help appease the weight of the oppressive heat.

Folk speech

I Need to Go Relax- Euphemism

Subject: Folk speech. The taboo.

Collection:

“Interviewer: So… growing up with your mom, if she had to go to the bathroom, what would she say?

Interviewee: I need to go relax.

Interviewer: And what do you say… now that you’re an adult with me, what do you say?

Interviewee: I need to go relax.”

Background Information: C. Taylor grew up in Southern California. She had a close relationship with her mother and paternal grandmother who first introduced her to this phrase. She currently lives in San Clemente, CA with her husband and one daughter.

Context: This was shared over dinner with my mother and father after my dad shared the history behind the phrase him and his buddies use when urinating in nature. My mother then contributed a phrase she learned from her mother and uses frequently in her day to day life with close family and mere acquaintances.

Analysis: This phrase epitomizes the idea that bodily functions are taboo and not to be discussed openly, even with one’s own family. The phrase is intended to mask the actual action that is being performed, communicating that going to the bathroom is something to be ashamed of or is otherwise unsuitable to be shared. It allows for the speaker to excuse themselves from a social situation in a dignified way that is vague enough to leave room for interpretation and discretion.

Folk speech
Humor

Floating a Log- Euphemism

Subject: Folk speech. The taboo.

Collection:

“Interviewer: When we were on our trip, we- our trip around Arizona and Utah, we went to… a lake, Lake Powell.

Interviewee: I checked the prop there many times.

Interviewer: So, can you tell me a little bit about what it meant to you as a kid to float a log?

[intense laughter]

Interviewee: Uh… uh.. yeah. We- it saved time going to the outhouse or into the motor home.

So, who- so, who was on these trips and who was partaking? Can you describe this environment a little?

That would be my good buddy Kelly… the race car driver.

Kelly Slater, the race car driver?

That would-be Kelly Slater the surfer.

Whatever.

Although, I’d betchya Kelly Slater has floated a log or two.”

Background Info: S. Taylor grew up in Southern California he grew up snow skiing, water skiing, motorcycle driving, jet skiing, playing volleyball, and racing cars. He first heard and began using the expression as a kid on trips to Lake Powell with his family friends. Today, S. Taylor lives in San Clemente, CA with his wife, C. Taylor.

Context: I first heard this phrase from my father when he was recounting stories of his childhood trips to Lake Powell on our trip there together. This account was shared over dinner to one-up his wife’s contribution of a phrase used as a substitute for urination that she learned from her mother. After this, the subject of conversation was abruptly changed.

Analysis: This phrase intentionally subverts societal taboos by openly addressing and making public those bodily functions that are actively suppressed. When on camping trips or other nature explorations, the rules surrounding bathroom etiquette are looser, especially for men. Often, these trips are a way of escaping urban society and allowing oneself to live freely in commune with the natural world.

The phrase “to float a log” naturalizes the bodily function in two ways. First, it calls the action of defecation to the forefront, making it public. This action combined with the humorous phrase allow for the speakers and bystanders to let out tensions that usually surround bathroom activities. This addresses the fact that defecation is a normal bodily function done by everyone, and calls into question the ways that society currently punishes talk or open expression of “toilet talk”. Second, the phrase uses metaphor that links feces to the natural world, or something that is thought to exist in nature, as opposed to something disgusting. This further naturalizes the action both in that moment and for when the performers of this folklore return home.

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