USC Digital Folklore Archives / Game

Kick the Can (Game)

My informant is Grant, a 19-year-old male student at USC. Grant was born and raised in Los Angeles, however his father is from Iran and his mother is from Japan. Both of these cultures influence his life in different ways. This piece of folklore is a tradition performed on a holiday.

Grant: “So uh as a kid I would used to play ‘Kick the Can’ in my neighborhood. Did you play that?”

No I never did how do you play?

Grant: “You would get a can or like a carton and we’d put it in the middle of the street and then you have like, only one person defending the can and everyone else would disperse and hide from different angles. So usually we would put it in the middle of a cul-de-sac so it would be easier to defend and everyone would spread out and go to different angles and you would like coordinate with people and run at the middle and try and actually kick the can while the defender tries to tag you”

So would the guy defending the can be allowed to be right next to it the whole time or did he have to move around?

Grant: “Oh you can’t really puppy-guard. Like probably can’t be within 10 feet of the can until someone comes running”

How do you win?

Grant: “You kick the can you get a point but if you get tagged you have to be in the middle and defend the can now”

Was this a big game in your childhood?

Grant: “Yeah, I would say so. I used to play it all the time with my neighbors”

Did you play this game at school?

Grant: “Yeah, we used to play it sometimes at recess”

Do you know who taught you the game?

Grant: “I don’t know, I think one kid must have come out and explained it and said let’s play this game and it just took off from there”

When did you start playing this game?

Grant: “I was like seven or eight”

When was the last time you played?

Grant: “Probably like 10, we went through a phase of it where we would play a lot”


I think Grant gave me a really typical example of a childhood game. Like most childhood games, kick the can requires very little specific gear to play the game, on the contrary, merely an old can or empty carton will suffice. Grant isn’t sure where he first learned the game but assumes one kid just offered the game, explaining the rules, then proceeding to get everyone to play. Thus the transfer of folklore and now more people know the game and as they play with other children they in turn teach the game, transferring folklore. Grant played this game with his friends at school and his friends from his neighborhood. It may very well have been him being the bridge bringing the game from the schoolyard to the backyard or vice versa. It is just interesting how explaining a fun game to children is a way of communicating folklore.


For alternate rules and explanation see here:


“The Rules of Kick the Can /.” Project Play. Project Play Books, 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.



Shark Hats (Magic – Contagious)

My informant is Jackson, a 19-year-old male student at USC. Jackson is white and of Danish and Irish descent and grew up in a suburb outside of Los Angeles called Palos Verdes.


Jackson didn’t you say something about a superstitious act you did in baseball?

Jackson: “Ah yes, it’s known as the shark-hats. Basically if you’re down by any runs in the late innings of a baseball game you all get out your shark hats, throw them on just like a shark. On the side with the brim facing straight up”

What was the goal of the shark-hats?

Jackson: “Basically the goal was that the shark-hats would start a rally and we would get hot and get hits and come back from behind”

Would you guys yell anything?

Jackson: “Ohh all we would yell was get out your shark hats right before the inning started and everyone would sit in the dugout with their shark-hats on”

What inning would it mainly start in?

Jackson: “The sixth or seventh but we only played seven innings”

When did it start? When was the first time you experienced the shark-hat?

Jackson: “Probably when I was eleven, just when I was playing baseball”

Do you now who started it?

Jackson: “No it was just something I had seen around my little league so guys before us must have done it too”

Would you find that it worked?

Jackson: “Well when it worked we would say it was because the shark-hats but it probably didn’t work more than it worked”

Does this have any meaning to you?

Jackson: “It just reminds me of my childhood and baseball”


This is an interesting superstition, however not surprising as superstitions are often found in sports, and in my studies especially baseball. The Shark-hat is a form of contagious magic, those in the dugout wearing the shark-hats to send good luck and success to the batter at the moment. When people are losing or down they reach for something supernatural as an aid or guidance to come back and in this case it is the Shark-hat. Although I had never heard of the Shark-hat, I am familiar with a similar form of this call for good luck but we called them rally-caps. Similarly, it would be in the bottom innings of a game when we were down and someone got a hit we would all wear are hats inside out to help spark a rally. Jackson admits to not believing his teams success ever stemmed from the shark-hats and he did not believe they would actually work but he still did them every time and credited the wins to the shark-hats whenever they came along. I think there was also a fear of if he doesn’t wear the shark-hat then he will be the reason they didn’t work. To Jackson it was a silly thing but he still did it every time maybe in hopes it work, maybe in fear of what would happen if he didn’t, or maybe just in the tradition in spirit of baseball.


Folk speech

Wise Devil

The informant, J, is 18 years old born and raised in Coachella, California. His mom is from Delano, California, while his dad is from Indio, California. He is majoring in Print and Digital Journalism with a Media, Economics, and Entrepreneurship minor. He also considers himself Mexican.

J-“My family really likes proverbs and saying. We many times have arguments through just proverbs. One of them is ‘mas sabe el Diablo por Viejo que por diablo’(more knows the devil for age than for devil)”

What does that mean to you?

J-“It means that older people have more wisdom since they have gone through more. They have more experience”

When would you use this?

J-“It is mainly used by parents on their children when the child argues. They tell them that to tell them that they know what’s best because they have already experienced something like that”

Do you use it?

J-“I rarely use it since I am not that old, but I do tell it to my younger siblings when they argue with my parents or even sometimes when they argue with me”

Analysis- The proverb shows that the Mexican culture is one that respects its elders and that has high respect for them since they are the ones with the wisdom. They also like to test their wisdom and ability through all the different proverbs that they have. The family is even teaching the young children by telling them the proverbs and using them on them.

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech

The Sandman

LaRose Washington


The Sandman

Origin: Puerto Rico

Story: When you go to sleep, the sandman comes into your dreams. He makes sure that you fall fast asleep.

Meaning: he is the one who helps you stay asleep.

Usage: Usually parents say it to their child when they want her to go to sleep. They’ll say, “If you don’t go to bed soon, the Sandman will miss you.” Also adults say it when they are ready to go to sleep. “I’m going to go see the Sandman”.

Analysis: This is an almost folktale creature in its conception, yet mentioning the Sandman usually seems to just be folk speech. While children might conceptualize him as an actual being, it seems that adults use it primarily as a form of expression or euphemism. His usage creates a calm and non-frightening incentive for children to go to sleep, which is probably the only effective way to make them sleep: it would be rather hard to frighten them into obedience with the boogeyman in this case, as they would never go to sleep. Presenting him as someone you would meet in your dreams, therefore, someone benevolent, is probably the best approach parents can make.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Fountain Run at USC

Informant: USC alumni

“The USC fountain run is a tradition for graduating seniors. They are not allowed to go into the water of any of the fountains at USC or else it is said they won’t graduate. But on the last week of class, they all get together, drink, strip down to their underwear or swimwear, and run through every single fountain at USC. It is this big celebration of achievement and a right that only graduating seniors have. Usually some people get too drunk, but it’s all about celebrating freedom and no more rules. It’s something you do with your friends, and something people reminisce about years later when they meet other USC alumni.”


Analysis: This is a ritualized tradition for separating a ‘privileged’ group of students from the rest. Only seniors are allowed to do this, because it is a right of passage- you cannot participate if you have not completed all the obstacles and challenges that the last four years brought. It entails formally breaking taboos, such as going inside the fountain before you graduate. This superstition also underscores that its a privilege that only people who have completed USC can partake in. After the formalized, restrictive education process at University where rules must be obeyed or else expulsion, students celebrate on the brink of freedom while they are still technically bound to the student body.

Folk Beliefs

Stepping on Cracks

JN is a freshman at USC studying neuroscience. She grew up in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago. Here is a superstition from her childhood that she still remembers vividly:
“When I was little, some kids on the playground used to say “step on a crack, you break your mother’s back.” This would mean that, like, when you were walking on the sidewalk, by stepping on any of the cracks or divisions between the sidewalk pieces, you could potentially break your mother’s back. I was super worried about this, so I always made sure to tip-toe over the cracks! Now, I don’t really care anymore because I know it’s just a saying, but on occasion I still make sure not to step on any sidewalk cracks!””

Did you learn it from your other friends? What gender were they? At what age did you learn it?

“I definitely learned it from other friends, probably girls! And I learned it in early elementary school.”

How seriously did you take this superstition? I remember I had friends who followed it religiously!

” I took it VERY seriously, but sometimes I would forget so I would definitely step on some cracks here and there!”


My thoughts: This is an interesting piece of folklore since so many people who went to elementary school in the U.S. have heard of it, no matter what part of the country their from. I actually grew up with this folk belief as well and I have an experience with it similar to the informant’s- I learned it from fellow girls on the playground at an elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago! One thing that stands out is how morbid the belief is- children’s folklore often engages with taboo subjects such as violence, as discussed in Oring Chapter 5.

Folk Beliefs

Hands Mean Cancer?

The Main Piece
“If your hand is bigger than your face then it means you have cancer.” After hearing that one usually puts their hand in front of their face and the performer slaps the performee with their own hand.
Background Information
My informant is my roommate, Sarah Kwan. She is an undergraduate at USC and considers herself a hilarious person making people laugh at the jokes she tells. She enjoys telling this joke because she feels it is a “old-school classic.” She can recall when her own friend pulled the joke on her when she was in high school and has used it to prank others ever since. It was a good way for her to make groups of people laugh, although it did not work all the time. Because of its “classic”-ness many people had heard of it and did not find it amusing, however she continues to use it despite naysayers’ attitudes.
This joke was performed in front of me and a couple other of my roommates. Unfortunately, many of my roommates did not particularly enjoy the joke, but it was an ice breaker as we half heartedly laughed at the joke. This may have occurred because of the fact that we were only a couple of weeks into the school year and did not know each other too well.
Personal Thoughts
I felt her attempt to break the ice with this joke had good intentions even if it did not work out the way she expected it to. It also revealed to me the usefulness of a joke and how these joke would get passed down from person to person, not necessarily being told by one another as stories are, but in the way that pranks are pulled on each other, thus creating a chain reaction of jokes or pranks.


Turkey Wishbone

The informant is a 21 year old male, studying in New York. He recounts his memories of a game he used to play with his family.

me: can you tell me a little bit about this tradition?

When we were little and we used to have turkey, when we would get to the wishbone and we would take the wishbone and dry it in the oven… dry it in the oven to dry it out… and then two people would take each end of the wishbone and pull in opposite directions and it would break, oh and the wishbone is shaped like a Y, I’m pretty sure its the sternum, and whomever umm got the bigger piece would get to make a wish, like when it’s broken, the bottom of the Y would end up only on one side and so one person would get that and the other person wouldn’t.

me: do you have a specific memory of doing this?

not a specific memory, but we used to always make rotisserie turkey, like it used to be a family thing, we made the marinade and made the turkey and everyone helped with something. It was something that we did pretty often. When I think about it I remember how much fun we used to have seeing who would get the wishbone in their food and then all the suspense while it was drying, and then the person who got the wishbone would get to picj who they wanted to pull on the other side, and that was always really hard because I have a ton of siblings and also my parents really loved to play too. And early on it was fun because with any superstition like that, you want to be the one who gets to make the wish and later on it was fun because of the tradition.


Having participated in this tradition myself, I feel very connected to this piece. It is very common for everyone but especially kids to look for any and all ways to make wishes, ie eyelashes, shooting stars, specific times on the clock. This wish holding belief is especially fun in that it requires suspense and a bit of a game!


Fan Lhor

LS is from Thailand. She explained the folk superstition surrounding eating. According to L, “If you eat the last piece of food on a plate, you’ll get a hot boyfriend, or a fan lhor as we call it.” Food is generally shared in Thailand, served family style with a bunch of plates in the middle of the table that everyone eats from. L told me that this was a favorite custom of hers because all her family and friends took it very seriously. She explains how you say “fan lhor” as you reach for the food. “Whenever we were at the end of the meal,” L recounts, “me and friends would all shout it [fan lhor] and race for the last piece. We always wanted a hot boyfriend, obviously.”

I love this custom because it is so much fun. I have seen L perform this in person at a few dinners. It is a natural thing for her to do at the end of a meal because she is so used to doing it at home. The custom captures the spirit of Thai meals, which are meant to be lively affairs with a big group of people.

I believe the custom exists because it encourages people to finish all of the food served by making a fun game out of it. Table manners are such an interesting part of a culture because they vary greatly. In some cultures it is rude to be aggressive and loud at the table, but in Thailand it is encouraged. Furthermore, these dining customs encourage good eating habits in a fun way. Folklore has this power to stick in our minds because it is performed for us in such casual, quotidian ways. It is easier to remember folklore than traditional rules or literature because it is so informal that it can be repeated and reheard daily.



My father always plays this ridiculous game with us. The premise is fairly simple: you inconspicuously hold out your hand (below your waist!) in an “OK” formation, meaning thumb and pointer in an “O,” other fingers out. If a friend (or in our case, a son or daughter) sees the hand, you get to punch him.

I asked my dad where he learned this, he said,

“It’s something we used to always play as kids. On the playground or in class or at home we’d always sneakily try to fool our friends just so we could punch them. Living in a house with four boys, sometimes this game got a little out of hand…”

Forty years later he passed it on to his kids. My dad isn’t very mature; he still finds this game wildly amusing. And it really is. Fooling someone into looking at your hand just so you can smack them on the arm is a great time. What I love about this game is that it can be “played” whenever. We’ll have a hiatus for an entire year, and my dad pulls out the hand signal, gets my brother to look down, and all hell breaks loose. It becomes a war of trickery and flying fists.

I asked my father what this game is called and he couldn’t remember. I’ve decided to call it “Gotcha!” because this is how my dad likes to mock us whenever we fall for the trick and get punched on the arm.

Simple games such as Gotcha! are interesting because they don’t really offer the same value as full-fledged sports or card games due, yet they are so popular in our culture. All ages and all types of people know games like paddy cake or hot hands. These games’ simplicity is probably the reason for their popularity. There is zero setup or materials required, and the rules are so minimal that anyone can learn to play in seconds. Because of this, these types of games become widespread. It amazes me how much entertainment humans can get out of simply messing with each other. Our capacity to create captivating competitive games out of nothing is astounding.