USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk speech
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

“The Best Construction”

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 reflects the down-to-earth and positive nature of the subject’s father. I haven’t encountered the exact version of this proverb anywhere else, but similar sayings exist sharing the theme of ‘seeing the best in other people’.

Main Piece

“My dad would always say, like, if we would complain about another person and say they were really mean he would say “Put the best construction on everything” so you don’t know, maybe they had good intentions, so think the best of other people.”

 

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 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.

Folk speech

Checking the Prop

Subject: The taboo. “Check the prop”.

Collection:

Interviewer: “Would you care to tell us a little about what it means to ‘check the prop’?”

Interviewee: “So… um… growing up water skiing… the old parents were always in a hurry when the kids were skiing to get up and get going, so they could get back to drinking their beer. Well… every morning, upon jumping in the water, us kids would proceed to take our time saying, “hit it…” by checking the prop. Which meant we were warming the water.”

His Wife: “Which means?”

Interviewee: “Taking a pee.”

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 the expression as a kid from his parents and the other adults on trips to the river, the Salton Sea, and Canyon Lake. Today, S. Taylor lives in San Clemente, CA with his wife, Carol Taylor.

Context: This was story was shared at dinner while asking my father about unique sayings or practices he had with his buddies from his days of racing off-road in Mexico. This phrase was suggested to him by his wife after she incorrectly asked if the men who he raced with in Mexico would have to knock on wood if they were checking the prop. I inquired as to the meaning above. He still uses this phrase today if he needs to use the bathroom on a long road trip on the side of the road or otherwise in nature.

Analysis: The expression “checking the prop” is indicative of the cultural tradition to find coded ways of speaking about bodily functions. Talking about bodily excretions is typically frowned upon as a topic of civilized conversation and is largely seen as something private. “Checking the prop” tackles this issue. It, first and foremost, allowed the adults to talk about what they were doing with one another with the hopes that it would, at least for a little while, go over their children’s heads. Over time, as the children catch on, they begin using the phrase and it creates a sense of bonding between participants; learning to “check the prop” comes as a rite of passage. The expression also addresses the discomfort associated with going to the bathroom for children (often developed as child) and replaces it with humor.

The primary participants on the trips were fathers and their sons. The specific reference to a part of the boat, the prop, allows the men to bond with their sons through humor over a universal activity (urination) about these bonding excursions (water skiing). It developed out of a specific tradition and, even when removed from that environment, retains explicit reference to its roots. S. Taylor and his friends still use the phrase today and it calls upon those memories for them of their childhoods and the times their families spent together water skiing. While the phrase has been adopted by their children or wives, there is a reinforced exclusivity within the community who attended the trips. His family and friends would spend most of the summer out at the Salton Sea, composing large chunks of their life. To call upon these memories by using the phrase today reinforces belonging to a familial community. Furthermore, the prop, or propeller, is typically suspended out below a boat by a metal bar. This maritime appendage is, especially in this context, phallic in nature; the item itself suggesting and adding humor to the activity for the men.

It is counterintuitive that something usually kept private becomes thrown into the open as it is happening. However, on trips into nature, as these were, the rules are changed. People can urinate wherever they want with discretion, especially if they are in water or are a man. Escapes into nature are essentially an escape away from civilization and the constraints it puts on an individual. In this case, one way the men and boys decivilize themselves by drawing attention to these bodily functions and bonding over them.

For Further Readings: Extensive records of bathroom humor can be found at “http://www.jokes4us.com/dirtyjokes/toiletjokes.html”. Most of these are straightforward jokes containing a question as a punchline. They illustrate the phenomena of coping with discomfort through humor and laughter.

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