USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk speech
Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech

Chopsticks and Rice

Text: So you’re never supposed to stick chopsticks upright in rice. In other words, you can’t just stab the rice because the rice symbolizes the grave.

Context: KT was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived there with his Japanese mother and British father for the first nine years of his life. Though memories of his time in Japan are fading as KT ages, he still remembers specific things about life in Japan that were ingrained on his young mind during his early years. The folklore above was shared over lunch one afternoon during which I asked KT if he thought he had any folklore he could share with me from Japan. Most of the material he remembers is because he either got in trouble for going against the superstition or his involvement in the practice scared him.

Interpretation: It is interesting how KT remembers folklore from his childhood that was either restrictionary (such as this one), a belief/practice that scared him, or both. The act of sticking chopsticks in upright in rice is a taboo found in other Asian countries such as China. The reason it is disrespectful is because it reminds people of funerals and is supposed to bring bad luck. this is because at Japanese funerals, a bowl of rice is displayed with two chopsticks standing vertically in the center. When chopsticks are straight upright in a bowl, it’s unlucky. If done in public, you would garner dirty looks as it is bad manners, not necessarily a horrible, unforgivable offense.

Folk speech

Moonlit Lakes and the Lies Men Tell: Indonesian Folk Song


SL: “So another like, poem, I guess you could call it, that my grandma taught me was this one – it’s um –

Terang bulan, terang di kali
Buaya timbul disangkalah mati
Jangan percaya mulutnya lelakilaki
Berani sumpah ‘tapi takut mati”

SL: “So it starts off like really poetic – the moon is really bright in the ocean, or the lake, the crocodiles are sleeping and they’re like so still that you think that they’re dead essentially, um, and it goes into the actual like part of the poem – it says “jangan percaya mulutnya lelakilaki”so “don’t listen to things that guys tell you” (laughter) because “berani sumpah ‘tapi takut mati” so they’re willing to tell you all these things but they’re not like – they’re really scared of just dying (laughter). So my grandma told me this because she’s like you need to not like focus on guys, you need to like focus on your studies and not get distracted. Um, but she’s also told a lot of my cousins this. And I guess it’s actually a pretty famous poem but um, she presented it to me as if she came up with it so I don’t know.”

MS: “What age were you when you first heard this?”

SL: “I think it was like – probably as a sophomore or junior in high school?”



The informant is an Indonesian-Chinese-American college student, who has lived in California her whole life. This conversation took place in my apartment while the informant and I, among a group of other people, were discussing our very diverse childhoods growing up in different parts of the world.



This poem seems to be an instructional note from an older generation to a younger generation. Based on preliminary googling the informant was actually referring to an adapted folk song from the French “La Rosalie” which was popular in 1920s and 1930s Malaysia. This seems to indicate that the song is a means for the informant’s grandmother, and more generally the older generation, to recount the past and communicate culture as they knew it. The song the informant mentioned was also modified from the version I was able to find online, which means it was probably adapted specifically to become instructional to a teenager as opposed to the original meaning which seems to not be about the lies that men tell women but that people tell each other in general.



The article The Politics of Heritage by Marshall Clark (2013, Indonesia and the Malay World 41:121, 396-417), talks more about contestation about the roots of this melody, and its relevance for the Indonesian and Malay cultures.

Folk speech

Uncle Kiki’s Toenails: Indonesian Tongue Twister


MS: “Oh do you remember that tongue twister you taught me? Where did you learn that?”

SL: “Oh yeah! My mom taught me that – hold on, let me make sure I get this right, okay.

“Keke kake kiki ko kuku kaki kake ko kaku ke”

SL: “So that’s like a tongue twister that my mom taught me when I was younger and it’s really (laughter) stupid. It’s just, it’s really childish. “Keke” means  – it’s just a slang word for Uncle and then “kake” is the actual word for uncle or just like an older man. And his name is “kiki”. “ko kuku kaki” so why are your toenails so like sharp (laughter). And that is the gist of the story.”

MS: “Is this just a your family type of thing or is it pretty common tongue twister?”

SL: “I think it’s a pretty popular tongue twister but it is said in different forms.”

MS: “Do the other kids of your family also know or use it frequently?”

SL: “I think they would definitely know what it is but I think I’m the most like in tune with a lot of the Indonesian words like slang and…so I don’t think they would necessarily register what I’m saying – it’s just like why are you saying these words to me?”



The informant is an Indonesian-Chinese-American college student, who has lived in California her whole life. This conversation took place in my apartment while the informant and I, among a group of other people, were discussing our very diverse childhoods growing up in different parts of the world. She had taught me this tongue twister a few years ago, and though I knew how to say it, I never had the cultural context necessary to truly understand it.



The tongue twister seems to be a means of connecting to a distant culture – both through the use of slang words and the implicit vernacular and pronunciation sophistication required to present the tongue twister correctly and understand its meaning. The humorous meaning is probably a means of making the content appealing to children so they get influenced to repeat the phrase and subconsciously learn the language and culture.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Looking for Water: Marathi Proverb about Appreciation


AB: “There’s this proverb that my mom says –”

“Kakhet kalsa gavala valsa”

AB: “– which basically means that you have um a pitcher of water in your hand but you’re looking for water in other places, which I mean happens literally too like how many times do you have glasses on your head and you keep for them in other places? But I think the more like metaphorical meaning is supposed to be that people tend to not realize what they have because they too busy like searching for things outside. So like not appreciating what you already have I guess.”

AB: “Yeah people usually say it to me when I’m complaining about all the problems in my life – they’re like “kakhet kalsa gavala valsa” like you’re not being grateful for all the good stuff that you have.”



The informant is an Indian-American college student from Los Altos, California. This conversation took place in my apartment while the informant and I, among a group of other people, were discussing our very diverse childhoods growing up in different parts of the world. Marathi is the language spoken in a specific region of India. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.



The informant does a pretty good job of explaining what the proverb means. An English equivalent would be “the grass is always greener on the other side”. It is interesting how the informant relates it to literal situations like looking for glasses which were on your head all along – this to me highlights the relevance of proverbs and emphasizes their staying power. Because their literal meaning is so easily understood intuitively, their figurative meaning holds more power.

Folk speech

Wig Snatching

In LGBT+ communities saying someone or something “snatched your wig” means you’re shocked by whatever happened. It comes from a drag performances where sometimes in more dramatic moments drag queens will literally take off another queen’s wig. Sometimes there can be another wig under the wig, making the whole event entirely premeditated spectacle, but usually the queen whose wig is pulled isn’t prepared and they have their actual hair revealed by the wig snatch.

This particular lingo speaks to the in-grouping found in LGBT+ communities. It’s a phrase referring to a specific act in a genre of show specifically produced, performed, and attended by a mostly LGBT+ folk group. The internet has spread the phrase around to become more mainstream but the nature of its origins shows how insular the environment it came about in was. The exact syntax is also flexible, with all sorts of small variations from “My wig? Snatched!” to sometimes just “Wig,” which makes sense given the LGBT+ communities general position as pioneers of evolving “archaic” language such as gendered pronouns.

Folk speech

Airforce Ranger

An off-the-books traditional AZA (Jewish teen youth group) call and response chant, with one person shouting each line before the entire group repeats it back. Sometimes different leaders will switch off and alternate rhymes, especially the more taboo stuff towards the end.

Lyrics: I want to be an airforce ranger

I want to live a life of danger

I want to drive an ocean liner

I want to pull a sixty-niner

And here’s to the woman that I love best

The many times I sucked her breast

F***** her standing, f***** her lying

If she had wings I’d f*** her flying

Now she’s gone but not forgotten

I’ll dig her up and f*** her rotten

Though she’s gone, I’ll surely miss her

I’ll call her up and f*** her sister


This song is an exercise in playing with taboo concepts and language in a childlike way that’s reminiscent of what Jay Mechling called obscene play. It’s usually performed in a relatively isolated setting, either inside the meeting room (usually some side room in a synagogue) or elsewhere separated from the adult advisors that represent the org legally. (That’s what separates the group from just loitering teens I guess.) It’s performed in this isolated, just teens setting alongside other similarly sexual vulgar songs in a kind of group catharsis act. The lyrics employ lots of shock humor that comes from all this extremely explicit material being unabashedly used in a public group in a public setting, especially one that is ostensibly a religious group. It basically signals to new members “We’re not prudes.”

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Awkward Silences are Called Tumbleweeds

Z is the informant, L is interviewer

Main Piece

Z: So in Texas, when there’s an akward silence or an awkward moment, we call it a tumbleweed.


L: So when a tumbleweed happens, what do you do?


Z: We don’t really call it a tumbleweed until after it’s happened. Like if we’re referencing a different awkward moment we’ll be like “oh that was a tumbleweed.” Now that I think about it, that’s so southern, oh my god. But yeah, it would be very weird if an awkward silence was happening and someone was just like, “oh this is a tumbleweed.” Like, it’s never a thing that’s mentioned at the time, it’s always in reference to it.


L: Do you know why?


Z: I think it had something to do with the fact that before the cowboys did their gun-dueling thing, like when they paused and waited to like, do the thing, there would be like, a tumbleweed that went by in the movies. I think that’s where it came from. It’s very Texan.



The informant is from Dallas, Texas.


Nationality: American


Location: Los Angeles, CA



I asked if she had any very Texan folklore



This story reminded me a lot of “awkward turtle” from back in grade school. I think there’s folklore surrounding awkwardness in social interactions because we evolved as social beings. Without social interactions, we would quite literally die, so anything that implies poor social standing or interactions, such as an awkward silence, feels intimidating. Being able to break the tension with shared folklore is a great way to counteract the negative social effects.


Folk speech
Old age

Italian Folk Saying

The following folk belief is a saying that my family friend G often heard from her mother in 1950s-60s San Francisco. Her mother was an Irish woman but G believes this is an Italian and global saying.

Text: It’s amazing that 1 mother can take care of 8 children but 8 children can’t take care of 1 mother.

Context: G told me this folksaying when I was meeting her for coffee, asking her about folklore she has heard. G described that this was a common saying in Italian and Irish families in San Francisco. G emphasises that she believes this folklore describes how a mother always takes care of her children and does anything for them while they are growing up. She is always there for her children when they need her throughout their lives. However, when a mother needs help, which is most often the occurrence towards the end of her life, all her children are absent. The children always claim they are to busy, have to work, or don’t have enough money to take care of the mother. G also said that throughout her lifetime, she has seen this folk saying come to fruition many times, and often see mothers be ignored or not given enough attention when they need help from their children.

Analysis: I think G’s interpretation of this folklore is completely accurate. This folk saying is clearly representing the belief that mothers should be cared for later in life, and often aren’t by their children. It demonstrates how our society is obsessed with wealth and capitalism, and not focused enough on family. Often times people don’t want to take care of their mothers later in life because it might limit the advancement of their careers. Another aspect of the folk belief is that it seems to personify older women to be in needing of care, which could show small sexism in society, as it is assumed that older men don’t need any help or resist it. However I do not belief that there is any true meaning to be sexist in this folksaying. In my research of this folk belief however, I found it interesting that this folk belief also occurrs in other cultures throughout the world, and exists in Muslim culture as well. Showing the importance of mothers throughout the world and the belief that children often neglect their mothers as they get older. Why this particular folk saying names 8 children, and others I found online have differing numbers of children, seems to be arbitrary and there is no meaning behind the specific number of children.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

Swimming Folk belief

The following folksaying was collected by my friend J. J is 19 years old and from Ohio.

J: My mom would always jokingly tell me “Don’t swim an hour after after you eat.”

Context: J told me that his family has a lake house and they often go swimming in the summer. His mom has told him this, but nobody in J’s family actually believes it, including his mom who told J this. J says that the belief behind this saying is that after you eat, all your blood and energy goes to your stomach, and your arms and legs therefore lose blood and energy to keep you up if you are swimming. J says that it is logical, but in his experience, he sees no difference in his swimming abilities before and after he eats. J says his mom told him this because she thought it was an interesting belief and wanted to share it with J, but didn’t believe in it and never prohibited J from swimming after he ate. J told me this folk saying in a group and it delved the group into a conversation as to whether this folk saying has any truth to it.

Analysis: This is a common folk saying that I too have heard in my lifetime. I have never heard of anyone following this folk saying however, and J felt the same way. It is surprising to me that this folksaying has survived for as long as it has, considering there seems to very few people who follow it.  It shows how people like to share information and beliefs they have heard, even if they don’t believe in it, as it can start an interesting conversation. It also shows that folk sayings are reliant on logic, not on science.

Folk speech

Proverb for How to Approach Different Kinds of Bears

[The subject is MSt. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

MSt: If it’s black, attack; if it’s brown, lie down; if it’s white, good night.

ME: Could you explain that for me?

MSt: Alright, so when you’re, like, in the backcountry, you see a bear, there’s different, like, responses that you should have depending on the type of bear, so if it’s black, attack; brown, lie down; uh, white, good night. So black bears are easily scared… One time I, like, there was a black bear- a black bear kind of came into my campsite and was like, rustling around, scaring everybody, but we were just, like, real loud that night, and we all sang into the campfire, and like, we scared it away.

ME: So black means you attack.

MSt: Black means you attack. ‘Cause they’re scared of humans. So they mostly just don’t want the trouble. Like, any bear’s gonna get between you and their cub, but pretty much, like, black bears don’t want the fight. They just wanna, like, live their own life. Which, retweet.

Brown bears: brown, lie down. So brown bears, grizzlies, will attack you, but only if, like, you’re interesting to them. So just, like, lay down, try to make yourself small, like, be very clear that you’re not gonna try to attack them, ‘cause they will fight you and they will win. Play dead, because you will most likely die if you see a grizzly bear, but there’s a chance you won’t if you just, like, play dead.
And then white is good night, because, like, if you see a polar bear you’re fucked.

Context: MSt is one of my suitemates, and a sophomore student in college. She was born in Germany and moved to Michigan when she was five years old, where she grew up and lived until coming to USC. German was her first language, and though she still understands it she has forgotten how to speak fluently and now considers English her primary language. She has always been interested in hiking, camping, and spending time outdoors. In the middle of a conversation about our favorite deadly animals, I mentioned polar bears and she recited the proverb above, which I then asked her to explain. She told me that she had heard it from a teacher on a high school camping trip after they saw a brown bear pawing at one of the tents and scared it off by blowing whistles and loudly singing songs.

Thoughts: The reason MSt saying this stuck out to me in the middle of our conversation was that growing up, I always knew that there were different ways you were supposed to react depending on the type of bear you ran into, but I had no way of remembering what there were. This was the first time I had heard something like “leaves of three, let it be” (a proverb about avoiding poison ivy) that applied to bears, and it feels like something I should have learned growing up. I can see it being spread very easily from person to person because in addition to being short, catchy, and easy to remember, it is actually helpful to know if you’re in a situation where you might encounter a bear, and besides that, the last third of it is funny. It makes sense as a proverb that an authority/mentor figure would tell a student (which is how MSt first heard it), but also as something kids could say to one another for fun in a relevant conversation (which is how I first heard it).