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

Looking for Water: Marathi Proverb about Appreciation

Text:

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.”

 

Context:

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.

 

Interpretation:

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 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.

 

Background

The informant is from Dallas, Texas.

 

Nationality: American

 

Location: Los Angeles, CA

 

Context

I asked if she had any very Texan folklore

 

Notes

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 Beliefs
folk metaphor
general
Signs

Puerto Rican Witches Getting Married

Description

“In Puerto Rico, they say a witch is getting married.”

Context

I was sitting with a few informants as we all discussed our cultures and our different belief systems. After one informant randomly offered their thoughts on what the Persians believe about rain when the sun shines, this informant gave me this tidbit of information. She went on further to explain that the origins of the belief are unclear, but that whenever it rained while the sun was shining, she had clear memories of her mother pointing at the sky and saying it.

Analysis

I found it interesting that I had two different people from two different cultures reflecting on this belief that there had to be something happening because it was raining and sunny at the same time. The closest thing I remember believing is that after a rain, or if there was a rainbow while it was still raining, there was a little leprechaun and a pot of gold at the end of it. My friends would make jokes about God peeing onto Earth, of course, but that was the most of it. I love that different cultures have different explanations, but I cannot begin to think what witches and rain and sun have to do with each other.

 

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor
Riddle

Watermelon House Riddle

“There was a green house, and inside the green house there was a white house. And inside the white house, there was a red house. And inside the red house, there were a bunch of little children. What is it?

Answer: a watermelon.”

Context: The informant and I were exchanging random jokes while waiting outside of our folklore class. Having just come from another class, we were very tired and hoping to lighten the mood before going in to class. This joke is memorable because her mother told her this joke at her tenth birthday party while her family was eating watermelon.

Analysis: This riddle follows the general application and structure of riddles. Many riddles are seen as a component of children’s folklore, though not exclusive to it, and are meant to sort of be a bit of a brain teaser and led them to think more complexly and critically. These riddles are supposed to be challenging but are capable of being answered. In this case, the riddle involves an object that most people (especially children) have access to, so the answer is easily understood. Most children are initially stumped, but upon realizing what the answer to the riddle, have an “aha” moment. In my experience, and in the experience of the informant, the more you get confused by the riddle, the more you want to share that riddle and stump your peers and those around you to see if they are “smart enough” to answer this difficult and tricky question.

Along with this, the answer to this riddle has an especially child-friendly aspect to it. Food–and fruit specifically–is something that all children and adults can understand and relate to. Due to this, the riddle is especially effective. The answer is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but only those who are clever enough to crack the metaphor will be able to come up with the answer. In this way, those who fail to answer the question will carry this riddle forward as a way to stump the people around them in the way that they were tricked.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor

Mexican Euphemism

Text

Informant: Now this is a grosero one. This is like a bad one, like, um, I will say it to you because someone might come up with this one.

“Mucho jamón para dos juevitos.”

(Translation: “Too much ham for two small eggs”)

Both the informant and interviewer laugh 

Interviewer: I understood that one.

Informant: That is like, famous. People will say… like if they see a skinny guy with a big girl, they say “hm, mucho jamón para dos juevitos.” That’s referring to… you know what.

 

Context- The informant is a middle-aged Mexican immigrant who grew up in Mexico City and then immigrated to Los Angeles in her teenage years. She has many family members still in Mexico City, so she learned many popular phrases from those family members both while growing up and during her frequent visits and phone conversations.

 

Analysis- This metaphor is a very playful and informal one about dating and sex. Euphamisms are often amusing for people so it is not surprising that the imagery of ham and eggs is metaphor for sex. The phrase is probably a funny and more polite way a spreading gossip from one person to another. Instead of making an actual critical comment about a persons weight, they use a metaphor and present it as a joke so that the criticism would be more accepted.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor

German Folk Metaphor

Context: The 51-year-old informant from Memphis, TN, and I were discussing the role of folklore in parenting. The topic originally came up when I asked him if he was ever repeatedly taught any proverbs by his parents when he was young. He told me that while his parents never told him many proverbs, there was one sentence that his father would say sometimes; it was something that the informant’s grandfather, a German Jewish Canter and Holocaust survivor, told to the informant’s father when he was a young child. While the folk metaphor may seem like a harsh threat for a father to say to his son, the informant explained that “it was normal for a German parent discipline in a rather stern manner while including this essence of subtle humor.”

Piece: 

German: “Ich schlach dich das deine zahne in arsch klavier spielt”

English: “I will hit you so hard that your teeth will play piano in your ass”

Analysis: It must be pointed out that the informant’s father and grandfather performed this German folk metaphor in two completely different contexts and with entirely different intentions. The Grandfather, having come from a more traditional time with a harsher upbringing, clearly did intend to instill some fear in his son with this sentence, but only enough fear to get him to stop misbehaving when he was doing so. The fact that the metaphor begins with a harsh threat and ends with the hilariously ridiculous image of a pair of teeth jumping around piano keys in someone’s rear end sends a message from father to son. While the father may be mad at his son, he is acknowledging to both himself and the boy that humor can be found in the situation and that no great offense was committed. On the other hand, the informant’s father recited this folk metaphor to son in order to remind himself about his childhood while also sharing the information with his son.

Customs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
general
Humor

“Yardsale!” – A Skier’s Term

Context:  I visited the informant’s dorm room at USC at about three o’clock, having already asked him if he was willing to participate in the collection project. He was willing, so we sat down to chat in his bedroom, alone. We began chatting, and I recorded two pieces from him. We sat in silence for a moment as I thought of more questions to ask him, and I remembered that he was an avid skier. I had been skiing since I was a toddler, and knew some folk terms from the practice. I asked him if he knew what a ‘yardsale’ was, and if he could describe it to me. Immediately, he recognized what I meant, and I began recording before he responded.

Transcription:

WD: What’s a yard sale in skiing?

JB: It’s like, when you’re skiing, and you eat shit, and you just lose every piece of gear.

WD: Yeah… but what happens then?

JB: So like, your skis will pop off, you definitely lose your poles, like, goggles, helmet, the whole fuckin’ deal.

WD: And then you’ve gotta figure out how to put all of it back on while on the side of a mountain?

JB: Yeah, your skis are the hard part, since they’ll  sometimes literally slide all the way down the hill, and then you gotta hike to go get it. Or, sometimes, like, fresh powder gets stuck in the bindings of your skis and you’ve gotta kick it out.

WD: And you look like a dumbass in front of other skiers, right?

JB: Exactly, sometimes people will yell “YARDSALE!” at you while they pass. You look like a fuckin’ idiot, for sure.

Informant:  The informant is an 18 year old, German-American student at the University of Southern California. He was born in Aptos, California, a small beach town located to the west of Santa Cruz. He is an avid skier, and has heard the term while skiing with friends in Mammoth, Tahoe and in Bear Valley. He has experienced this type of fall before, and knows how difficult it can be to reset your equipment in the middle of a ski run.

Analysis: This piece of folk language could also be considered as a joke. Experienced skiers tend to exalt themselves, especially when they see inexperienced skiers fall. The term “yardsale” refers to the image of all the skiing equipment scattered across the slope, like items set out for a yardsale. In practice, the phrase can be used as an insult, especially towards strangers on the slope. For example, if an inexperienced skier attempts to ride a hill outside of their skill range and loses their equipment, another more qualified skier may shout the phrase while passing. The inexperienced skier is then left in the middle of the hill, dodging other skiers while searching for their lost poles and skis. Yet, it could also be used as a form of relief in a frightening situation among friends. For example, if a pair of skiers are riding together through difficult terrain and one of them wipes out, their friend may shout the phrase to assuage any fears of injury their friend may have. Especially in a scary fall, the phrase can be used as a form of comedic relief to normalize the drastic nature of the tumble.

Childhood
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Protection
Proverbs

The Whiter the Bread, the Quicker You’re Dead — Health Proverb

Text

The following piece was collected from a young woman from Denver, Colorado. She will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “Before I went vegan, my dad would say to us whenever he thought we were being unhealthy. He would say we weren’t allowed to have white bread, only wheat.”

Collector: “What did he say?”

Informant: “He would say, ‘The whiter the bread, the quicker you’re dead.’”

Collector: “Haha…that’s good. What do you think he meant?”

Informant: “Oh, obviously he was just trying to scare us into believing that if we ate unhealthily, we would die…haha… kind of mean but pretty effective, as far as I can remember.”

Context

            The Informant learned the piece from her father when she was a child. She believes its meaning is pretty clear – if you eat unhealthy food, like white bread, then you are more likely to reap the consequences. The Informant believes that it was simply a saying used to frighten children into eating more healthily. She has always remembered the saying because of its catchiness, but also because when she made the decision to become vegan, she also gave up white bread. She laughs now at the fact that her father can no longer remind her that if she eats white bread, she may die sooner.

Interpretation

            I believe this saying to be very interesting but not uncommon within a parent-child relationship. It is easy to understand the many ways parents try to persuade their children to act correctly and do the right thing. This is just one of the many examples of that form of parenting. “White the bread, the quicker you’re dead” is reminiscent of the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. In both cases, these sayings serve as a warning to a child – to be healthy and safe. But looking deeper, the saying can serve as a reminder that you reap what you sow – if you do something that will negatively affect you, there is no one to blame but yourself.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor

Knock a Dog Off a Gut Wagon

Piece:

Informant: “Smelled so bad it would knock a dog off a gut wagon.”

Background:

The informant learned this saying from her mother, and explained that it came from old butcher shops that would deliver meat on vehicles called “gut wagons,” where the meat and inedible guts of an animal were separated.

Context:

This was recorded during a conversation at the informant’s home in San Diego, CA.

Thoughts:

I think this is a good example of a saying that has probably declined in use due to its decreased relevance in the modern day. I have never heard of this saying or even a “gut wagon” before, which is largely unsurprising given the rise of the food industries, which has led to the separation of consumers and the processes that bring food from farm to table. Instead of directly interacting with a butcher, most consumers nowadays simply visit a grocery store and purchase prepackaged meat that is already trimmed and cleaned.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Narrative
Proverbs
Tales /märchen

Chinese Proverb About the Farmer and the Rabbit

Context: The informant, a 19-year-old Chinese-American college student, shared this proverb with me on the Lunar New Year. We were discussing how her parents raised her to embrace her Chinese-American culture. She explained how the lessons she was taught as a child still impact her outlook on life today.

Text:

Informant: I know an old Chinese proverb. Um… it’s from, I think, a famous philosopher. Basically, I learned it from my parents and then again in Chinese school. I can’t remember the Chinese translation, but basically the gist of the proverb, or what the proverb literally means is… um “waiting by the tree for the rabbit.” And the story behind it, because all Chinese proverbs kind of have like a story behind them, um… is that there’s this farmer who um basically lived off his land and sold his crops and sort of lived that way. But one day, while he was plowing his land, um a rabbit ran into a tree and died. So, the man got his dinner that day and he had the bright idea of basically… he decided, “Screw farming! I’m just going to wait by this tree for more rabbits to crash into the tree, so I can eat, you know, rabbits for the rest of my life.” And then, he waited for a really really long time and, no surprise to anyone else, no rabbits crashed into that tree again. And, it’s kind of confusing, but basically the proverb means that you can’t wait for things to fall in your lap. Like all good things that are like worthwhile um… take a lot of work and a lot of dedication. And if you sit around and wait for that rabbit to come, it will never come.

Informant’s relation to the item: The proverb is important to the informant because it was taught to her by her parents and then again in Chinese school as a young child. Thus, the proverb has both significance within her family and also cultural/educational significance. Additionally, the proverb, which stresses the important of hard work, continues to impact the informant’s work ethic today.

Interpretation: This particular proverb does not make much sense to a listener who does not have much knowledge of Chinese culture. Without the context of the folk tale surrounding it, the proverb seems like an insignificant phrase. However, knowing the story as well as the importance of hard work and industriousness within many Asian cultures, the proverb clearly holds a lot more weight. This is a common occurrence when analyzing proverbs, which are usually very hard to translate across cultures due to language and cultural barriers.

 

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