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


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.


folk metaphor
Folk speech

“Where We Dropping?”

While discussing familiar folklore in class I sat with a few young white male peers and the conversation of video game folklore came up. It was clear that all of us were familiar with Fortnite and we realized how much slang has been created from the game. One student, Chris , exclaimed that we would all be familiar with the phrase “where we dropping?” but, most people, especially those who do not play the game, would not understand what this means.

A few of us were circled around discussing folklore when Chris said “yeah and ‘where we dropping’, you guys all know what that means! We are going to Tilted Towers hahaha, but if I said that to my mom she would think that I am dropping something from my hands. It’s definitely only something people who play Fortnite would understand.”

This is a commonly used phrase when playing the game Fortnite because everyone playing the game starts out in the sky in a flying bus and, when you play with a team you all want to drop from the bus and land in the same place. Thus, everyone will ask each other “where are we dropping?” It’s a strategic term that millions of people understand because of the mainstream culture of this game but, not everyone in the world knows, and it is certainly not taught in a textbook.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

New York Baptism

Main Piece: A New York Baptism is either the first time you get badly splashed by a taxi in NYC or the first time mysterious droplets (which might not be water) from above trickle onto your forehead.

Context: The informant (OC) is half Paraguayan and half American, and she speaks both Spanish and English. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult, so the informant is first generation, but the rest of her mother’s side of the family resides in their home city – Caazapa, Paraguay – and are very well-known in their community. Her father’s side of the family are “classically Jewish” people from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York. Although she is not religious herself, her upbringing was culturally Jewish and Catholic. Our discussion took place in her home in Orlando, Florida while her mom made us tea and lunch in the background. As stated in the main piece, OC has heard multiple different variations of the joke, both originating from New York City situations. She originally heard the iterations of the joke from her immediate family based in Brooklyn, NY and finds the sayings funny for their grudging celebration of uniquely New Yorker situations as well as their play on the concept of baptism, given that she grew up in a religious family but still remains skeptical of organized religion. She also has personally experienced a New York Baptism and delights in witnessing the bewildering baptisms of others.

Personal thoughts: The New York Baptism joke is essentially a coping mechanism to deal with the poor conditions of an overpopulated and polluted city. Baptisms are generally seen as wonderful ceremonies where you are reborn into the purity of God’s forgiveness and light, so to place such “negative” experiences on par with a baptism seems discordant and ironic. However, the juxtaposition between the uncleanliness of the city and the purity of religious experiences makes us question what the difference really is between a baptism and dirty city water. Who’s to say that whatever splashed onto your forehead isn’t Holy Water? Are our religious ceremonies really that “pure” anyways, or are we just placing arbitrary concepts of dirty and clean onto a world that will always, in some way, be dirty? To come back to my original point, the joke takes the undesirable concepts of mysterious substances and inconsiderate taxi drivers and turns them onto their head. Although New York is crowded and dirty, those conditions are out of any individual New Yorker’s control, so why not embrace them? People will always call New York home with all the love and devotion in the world, which is why mysterious liquids are not seen as something to be disgusted with, but rather cherished like you would cherish an annoying but lovable family member.

folk metaphor

Mexican Phrase: “Descacharon con manos en la masa”


Informant: You know what masa is? You know that, that doe that my mom uses to make the sopes?

Interviewer: Oh yeah.

Informant: That’s called masa.

Interviewer: Oh yeah, yeah. I know masa.

Informant: So, if you are doing something mischievous, people will say to you “descacharon con manos en la masa.” “They catch you with your hands in the dough.” That means they catch you doing something.


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 of these legends from those family members both while growing up and during her frequent visits and phone conversations.


Analysis- This metaphor is very similar to the American one about catching a kid with his hands in the cookie jar. Both of these metaphors mean the same thing but have different culture connections. Because chocolate chip cookies and cookie jars are popular cultural imagery of the United States, the use of such imagery would not have the same affect in Mexico. The use of masa is logical as masa is used to make a variety of Mexican dishes. Because masa is so widely use, kids sneaking tastes of it while their mother was not looking would be very common. Therefore, the use of masa in this saying is appropriate.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

“Every grain of rice has a destiny”

Context/Background: The informant’s mother used to have a saying that she would express to them growing up. Pertaining much to emphasizing not wasting food, there is an element of attributing energy and value to it.


“So growing up… my mom used to say every grain of rice had a destiny whenever you threw any sort of food away- it wasn’t just about rice, but just food in general. And it was basically just like something that her and everyone in her family- and I’d assume, our ancestors before that- would always say to like… encourage you not to waste food ’cause they were very like… economical and practical about that… and… yeah. I think it’s just like… every piece of food… or the value that was behind it was that every piece of food like has a certain amount of energy to it and that energy is like… if you… if you get the food, you’re supposed to ingest that energy and use it to fuel your body and if you throw it away, then you’re like… throwing away the like, potential energy of that food that it was supposed to give you.”

A) Some earlier datings referencing the “destiny” and a “grain of rice” can be found in studies referencing an Indian Subcontinent which indicates that “every grain has a name (of who will eat it).”

Introduction: She was first introduced to the saying by her mother who would recite it to her family in an effort to get them to appreciate food and not waste it.

Analysis/Interpretation: I think this proverb is very valuable cross-culturally because of the emphasis placed on the value of not wasting and appreciating any food you’re given access to. I think there are definitely similar elements across different cultures. Growing up, in my aunts home specifically, there was a large emphasis on not wasting anything on the place which was very known and heavily present.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Why do you have to taste soy paste and shit to tell them apart?


The subject is a college freshman, born in South Korea before moving to the United States when they were 12 years old. I wanted to get to know more about any folklore they might have experienced growing up, so I conducted an interview with them to find out.



Subject: It’s said in a way, like, “You don’t have to taste the soy paste and shit to tell them apart.” I think I’ve told you this already.

Interviewer: Yup I remember this.

Subject: Like soy paste kinda looks like shit, but most people are aware enough, like, we know from afar. But people who are so stupid, or like, people who go the extra mile to be safe. We say, “why do you have to taste shit and soy paste to tell them apart, why can’t you just — why aren’t you smarter?”

Interviewer: So that’s basically what you say to someone when they’re being dumb?

Subject: Yeah, if you’re being stupid, you’re tasting soy paste and shit to tell them apart.



I tried looking up the phrase, however I was unable to find any substantive background to the saying. The subject went on to tell me additional proverbs from Korea that also have to do with food, leading me to believe that the culture may have a great appreciation for it.

While the United States pride themselves on fast meals, a staple of Asian culture is the dining experience. It’s communal and meant to be shared.


folk metaphor
Folk speech

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 metaphor
folk simile
Folk speech
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Good Old Grandpa

Over the past few years, I’ve heard snippets of this friend’s crazy grandpa. Many nights, we’d eat together and share stories of our nutty families, as we both share lineage with what many would call ‘eccentrics’. Self purportedly from a family comprised of 50% white trash and 50% religious explorers, he grew up around a variety of funny saying and stories.

The following was recorded during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“He had a lot of sayings for like the weather. ‘It’s colder than a witch’s tit’. Or, ‘it’s darker than a snake’s asshole.’ There were a lot of asshole things too. ‘Colder than a well-digger’s ass’. ‘I’d rather have acid poured down the crack of my ass than…’ ‘I’m so hungry I could eat the ass out of a dead gorilla’. ‘You talk like you have a paper hat’. ‘You talk like your ass is made of paper’. ‘Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which one fills up first’. ‘Tough titties said the kitty’. He said that one a lot. ‘As useless as tits on a hoe-handle’. ‘Nervous as a whore in church’. ‘Nervous as a pregnant nun’. If something doesn’t go over well, he’d be like, ‘oh, that went over like a turd in a punch bowl’. He also had a lot of superstitions or tics I guess. He’d always get wine with ice in it – my mom’s family is 100% pure white trash. And so, he would order wine with ice in it, and then he would get it, stir it with his pinky, then suck on his finger, and wipe it on the left side of his shirt. Every single time. He’d like dry it off with the corner of his shirt. So all of his shirts had little things sticking off from him pulling on it to dry off his fingers. He’d stir his wine like it was a mixed drink or something.”

These weird little sayings always crack me up. They range from somewhat clever and somewhat useful to totally nonsensical and just plain silly. I especially love the strange ritual my friend’s grandpa performs every time he drinks a glass of wine. He seemed to do things just for the hell of it. What a way to live.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Sie Hat Nicht Alle Tassen Im Schrank

Original: Sie hat nicht alle tassen im schrank

Translation: She doesn’t have all the teacups in her pantry

Full translation: This phrase is used when one is trying to say someone else is crazy. When used, one is implying that the person in question is not entirely right in the head.

Note: This piece of folk speech was only provided using the pronoun “she”. However, he/she can be interchanged and the phrase would still work in conversation.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this piece of folk speech used almost interchangeably with any other permutation of “that person is crazy” both in the city and in the countryside. He does not see it as a piece of folk speech, but rather as another piece of his vocabulary. When someone is acting crazy, this phrase comes as naturally as simply saying “That person is crazy” in German.

Analysis: I was especially excited by this folk speech because it closely resembles a similar phrase used in the United States. In the US, the phrase “the lights are not all on upstairs” shares a similar meaning, to imply that the subject it is referring to is somehow not right in the head. The two phrases most definitely appear to be oikotypes – regional variations of a piece of folklore. Interestingly, however, the German use of “teacups” and “pantry”, more traditional objects may suggest that the German phrase is actually the original, from which the American phrase was derived. Considering there is a sizeable German population in the US, this could most definitely be the case!

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Every Rock Falls on My Head

Item (direct transcription):

Every rock falls on my head.

Background Information:

The informant learned this saying from his father. It means, “I get blamed for every problem.”

Contextual Information:

The informant says he uses this dite when he feels that he is being undeservedly blamed for something, especially if by his wife. However, he only uses the dite playfully or jokingly, not rhetorically. When he is truly upset or argumentative, he does not use this saying.


This saying meets all four of the canonical criteria for a dite. It is (1) short, (2) fixed-phrase, (3) metaphorical, and (4) not rhetorical.