Category Archives: Folk speech

Clamming

Main Text:

“Like when you fuck up a note, you, like, clammed it. You say “That was a clam.” It’s probably for when you should know better, not sight-reading. I feel like it’s like “damn…I practiced this so much but I still clammed it.” I think it’s for when you play the wrong note, not when it’s out of tune. That’s how I use it.”

Background Info: The informant is a man in his early twenties who is minoring in violin performance at a university in Washington State. He spent his entire childhood in Long Beach, California and has performed in various orchestral groups. In addition, he also played tenor saxophone in his high school marching band and jazz band. He is currently a working gig musician.

Context: The concept of “clamming” is typically found in a musical context, usually jazz or orchestral. Clamming is a term that the informant actively uses, and has encountered in just about every orchestral setting he’s played in. It usually comes up during rehearsal when he is playing a piece he already knows (as opposed to sight-reading, where the musician plays through a piece they’ve never seen or practiced before). The clammed note is not simply out of tune—it’s a completely different note than the one written on the page. Sometimes, whole passages or phrases of music can be clammed, but it’s usually used in reference to a specific note. It’s typically said in a self-deprecating, humorous manner, but the informant notes that it sounds so natural he barely even notices it’s a unique word—he only realized it was something specific to musicians when I asked him to elaborate on what he meant when he said it.

Thoughts: The origins of the phrase are not particularly clear—some have asserted that “clamming” comes from the phrase “to clam up” or to shut down or get quiet when pressure is put on you. Other people assert that “clamming” has origins with specific orchestras or stage bands from the middle of the century, and from there the term spread to other music groups. No matter what the basis is, it seems to be a pretty widespread term, based on my informant’s geographic history. Musicians tend to have a lot of inside jargon, just like any other specialized profession or folklore, but what makes this different from music theory or Italian terminology is its informality and unofficial, yet commonly known definition. The use of “clamming” as a term offers a way for musicians to ease the tension—in a form of art so demanding of perfection, saying you clammed a note is a way to acknowledge a mistake that never should have occurred while also moving on from it. In essence, it’s the equivalent of “my bad.” Everybody shrugs and moves on, usually to start the section or piece over again without any more missed notes.

“A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck” (돼지 목에 진주목걸이)

Main Piece : 

“돼지 목에 진주목걸이”

Original Script : 돼지 목에 진주목걸이

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Dwaeji mok-eh jinju mokgul-ee

Transliteration : A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck

Full Translation : One must live within one’s means

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : So what do you think what it means by a pearl necklace on a pig’s neck?

E : Maybe that it doesn’t go along well? It doesn’t fit?

S : Basically, yeah. A pig will never wear a pearl necklace and even if it did, it won’t know the value of it, whether it is high or low. This proverb means that one must live within one’s means and know their own value. If one doesn’t live within their ‘range’ but only seeks for valuable objects, they will only look like a pig with a pearl necklace. 

E : Haha, I think that’s a very straightforward explanation of it – a pig with a pearl necklace.

S : It’s supposed to give that direct meaning, I guess.

Analysis :

This proverb shows the difference of a human and an animal and that they have different values for objects. While a human might admire expensive cars and jewelry, an animal would not value those objects but would rather value a good meal. This hints at a humor by comparing two unlikely matters; an expensive pearl necklace and a pig, which is an animal that is usually perceived to be dirty. 

“You hide your head but not your bottom” (頭隠して尻隠さず)

Original Script : 頭隠して尻隠さず

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Atama kakushite shiri kakusazu

Transliteration : You hide your head but not your bottom

Full Translation : You think you have hided your wrongdoings perfectly, but everyone knows that you did it

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : I think I learned this one when I was in middle school. So, “頭 (Atama)” means head in Japanese and “尻 (Shiri)” literally means butt, haha. And “隠す (Kakusu)” is a verb that means to hide. The proverb is directly translated into “you hide your head but not your bottom”. Since the person hiding can’t see what others are doing, the hider thinks that no one knows what he or she has done and acts like they didn’t do anything wrong too. But in fact, everyone knows what’s going on and it’s the hider himself that doesn’t know what’s going on. 

Analysis :

The proverb makes the audience imagine a person hiding its head in a hole or in a corner while exposing its curled-up body completely. Because what they see is darkness in the corner and avoids people’s attention and judgement from it, they think they have kept their mistake undercover and no one knows about it. However, in fact, everyone obviously knows what is going on but just acts like they didn’t see it. This proverb reminded me of a personal memory of mine when I was playing hide-and-seek with a young cousin. She would hide behind the curtains but her leg would be still exposed under the curtain. However, I had to act like I couldn’t find her and ‘lost’ the game because I couldn’t find her in time. She giggled and thought I wasn’t able to find her at all. This proverb can also be translated that the person hiding isn’t smart enough like a young baby to know that everyone knows the truth.

“Eating from the same rice pot” (同じ釜の飯を食う)

Original Script : 同じ釜の飯を食う

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Onaji kamano meshiwo kuu

Transliteration : Eating from the same rice pot

Full Translation : Joining as a new member of a community

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : Basically, eating from the same rice pot indicates that they are sitting in the same space while eating and are familiar with each other. Sharing a meal shows that they are friends and are in the same boat. If you think about it, not a lot of people get to share the rice from a single rice pot; it’s either your family or a person who lives with you. It’s this straight-forward.

Analysis :

This proverb was very easy to understand and personally relatable because there is a Korean version of this proverb. The Korean version of this proverb also translates into “eating from the same rice pot”. I’m not sure where it was first introduced from, but this shows that Asian cultures have a similar understanding of proverbs. Also, I thought it was interesting how it was ‘rice pot’ out of all foods that a person can share; it adds an Asian aspect to it. It also implies how sharing of foods means that they are ‘on the same boat’. 

The sharing of food (or drinks) is also related to the ‘Sakazuki’ ceremony, which is a ceremony of Japanese yakuza (Japanese gang) performs when a new gang member joins in. They share a cup of traditional Japanese alcohol, sake and the sharing of the drink means that the new member is now an official member of the yakuza family; the member must show absolute loyalty to the family and the boss must protect the member under all circumstances. 

A detailed further description of the Sakazuki ceremony and the importance of creating bonds between yakuza members could be found in this article, “Insider Outsider: The Way of the Yakuza” written by Jacob Raz.

“A terrapin and the moon” (月と鼈)

Original Script : 月と鼈

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Tsuki to suppon

Transliteration : A terrapin and the moon

Full Translation : Two completely opposite beings

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : You can think of terrapin as a small turtle. I think it’s other name is a soft-shelled turtle, but it’s basically the same thing except that terrapins are smaller than turtles and stay in the mud of rivers. The reason why they compare a terrapin and the moon is because of the fact that they are similar because they are both round like a circle, but also very different. While the moon is often described as a bright and aesthetic figure up in the sky, a terrapin stays under the dark, wet mud. This proverb is used when comparing two objects or people that are completely different beyond comparison. 

Analysis :

I thought this proverb possibly expresses the Japanese society’s affection for the moon. There are a lot of traditional stories like ‘the story of Genji’ where a character wakes up in the middle of the night and stares at the moon for a long time, admiring its beauty. It was interesting how they chose the moon over the sun, which is also a symbol that is round in shape and admired by a lot of cultures. 

“A Kappa carried away by a river” (河童の川流れ)

Original Script : 河童の川流れ

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Kappa no kawanagare

Transliteration : A Kappa carried away by a river

Full Translation : Even experts make mistakes and no one is perfect

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : Kappa is a Japanese traditional mythical creature that lives in the water. Even though they still can survive outside water, they need to keep themselves moist enough to live. Like this, they are very water-friendly creatures. This proverb talks about how a Kappa is being carried away in the river while they are experts in swimming. It indicates how they have made a mistake and are being carried away. It doesn’t mean that they are dead through! It just means that even an expert makes a mistake sometimes. 

Analysis :

I liked this proverb because it adds humor and makes the audience think about a water-based mythical creature floating around in the river water because of their mistake. Other than the humor, this piece also tells the audience that not everyone is perfect and even experts would make mistakes in certain situations. The origin of this proverb is unknown, but a Korean version of this proverb is called “even a monkey falls off a tree sometimes (원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질때가 있다)”. This Korean version is a possible oikotype of this proverb because Kappas are not believed in Korean societies. Thus, they took out the Japanese mythical creature out of it and replaced it with a monkey, who is an expert in climbing trees and vines. 

“Even cold water will get in your teeth” (喝凉水也塞牙)

Original Script : 喝凉水也塞牙

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Hē liángshuǐ yě sāi yá

Transliteration : Even cold water will get in your teeth

Full Translation : If you are meant to be unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing a proverb that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He told me that since he couldn’t remember in detail and had to ask his parents again, a lot of the dialogue is summarized. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call.

Z : What does it even mean by ‘water getting in my teeth’? It’s something that is not possible because water is a liquid without any smell or taste. This proverb thus means that if you are unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do. If you are trying to drink water and you’re meant to be unlucky, a water will get between your teeth and you will be annoyed by it. 

Analysis :

This short proverb and its explanation added a humor factor in it. Rather than explaining it with other food or drink items, the proverb talks about water ‘getting in one’s teeth’, which is something no one has ever and will ever experience before. This reminded me of the Korean version of this proverb, “an unlucky man will break their nose even if they fall backwards (재수 없는 놈은 뒤로 자빠져도 코가 깨진다)”. In this Korean version of the proverb, it also talks about an impossible combination of happenings; first, one falls backwards and is expected to hurt his backside of his head but second, he ends up breaking his nose, which is located on the front side of their head. This also indicates how unlucky events seem inevitable and unavoidable because it is destined to be so for people. 

“When the tiger used to smoke” (호랑이 담배피던 시절)

Main Piece : 

“호랑이 담배피던 시절”

Original Script : 호랑이 담배피던 시절

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Horangee dambae pidun shijul

Transliteration : When the tiger used to smoke

Full Translation : Long, long time ago… 

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.  

S : So ‘호랑이가 담배피던 시절’ is one of the most famous opening lines of Korean folk stories. The storyteller, or whoever narrates the story would start off with this opening sentence and continue telling the first chapter of the story. It is similar to how Disney movies start with “once upon a time..”. They never identify the exact year of what’s taking place, but only hints that it is a very long time ago. 

E : Is the author for this opening line known?

S : I don’t think so. I’m not an expert on this, but because this is a very widely used opening in countless folk stories, I think it is unknown and will be hard to find who started this. I don’t think the author for “once upon a time” is known too. I’d be surprised if the author is known. 

Analysis :

I think this particular folktale opening reflects a very Korean aspect as they introduce the tiger out of all animals. Tiger has been a national animal of Korea for a very long time and a lot of the ancient folk drawings or cultures include, or is related to tigers. Tigers in Korean folklore hold a great importance and has been used in various occasions such as the Olympic mascot. Also, when we explain smoke, it doesn’t mean Western cigarettes, but it is most likely believed to be ‘곰방대(Gombangdae)’, which is a traditional smoking device of Korea made out of wood and metal. This opening lets the readers imagine a tiger, sitting in his house like a human, and smoking, using Gombangdae. The triggering of the imagination of the readers gives off a mystical feeling to open the scene. 

This article highlights how Korea used a white tiger as a mascot for their 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and what tiger means in their culture.

“Finding a needle in the sea” (大海捞针)

Original Script : 大海捞针

Phonetic (Roman) Script : dà hǎi lāo zhēn

Transliteration : Finding a needle in the sea

Full Translation : It is as hard as finding a needle in the sea

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing an idiom that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Z : Haha, I think I don’t even need to explain this because the idiom speaks for itself. Finding a needle in the middle of the vast sea is not even close to being possible – it’s impossible. This idiom is used when expressing a situation that is not possible in any way.

Analysis :

This is a very common idiom used in Asian countries, and I believe it is used in other cultures too in different oikotypes. In Korea, there are two versions to this idiom. One is ‘finding a needle in the beach’, which is very similar to the Chinese idiom by my informant. I thought it was very interesting how they both are related to the sea and also how it implies the fact that sea is still not studied enough and no one knows what is down in the deep sea. The other one is ‘finding Mr. Kim in Seoul’, which adds a Korean aspect to it. Kim is one of the most common last names in Korean and Seoul is the capital of South Korea and is well known for its crowdedness since all people gather in Seoul. This Korean version shows that it is impossible to find the ‘Mr. Kim’ one is looking for in the overcrowded city. 

“Do not rest under a bad three and do not drink bad water” (恶木盗泉)

Original Script : 恶木盗泉

Phonetic (Roman) Script : È mù dào quán

Transliteration : Do Not Rest Under a Bad Tree and Do Not Drink Bad Water

Full Translation : Do not do anything bad that you will be shameful in the future regardless of the situation you are in

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing an idiom that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Z : The idiom “do not rest under a bad tree and do not drink bad water” means that you must not do anything that you would be shameful of in the future no matter what situation you are in. You might be in a very tired state and want to rest and drink lots of water for recovery but resting under a bad tree and drinking bad water will influence you in a negative way and you will regret your rash decisions later on. 

Analysis :

This idiom indicates not only that people shouldn’t do anything that will embarrass them later on but also the fact that when a person is tired and desperate, their sense of what is right and wrong might be distorted too. This idiom tells the people that even in those hard times, one must not lose their consciousness and know how to make right choices to prevent the aftermath.