USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘cat’
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic

A Cat Giving Birth

Description

“They say that when the sun is out and it’s raining, a cat is giving birth. My mother would say it all the time, but I remember one time we were in the car and we were driving, I was a toddler. It’s raining and it’s sunny, and she would say, ‘Oh look, a cat is giving birth right now.’ I asked her, ‘How do you know, mom?’ and she was just, ‘It’s just true.’”

Context

This conversation came when I was discussing the rain back where I am from, and this informant as well as another discussed their beliefs surrounding rain while the sun shines. The informant heard it first from their mother, when they were in the car and driving, as outlined in the description.

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.

 

Humor
Life cycle
Narrative

The Death of Mom Shaggy Dog Joke

Informant: “So, the joke goes… There was this guy who was on a trip to England for fun. The guy was maybe 40 years-old and this was a huge deal for him. He had never left the United States before and only spoke English so he thought that going to London would be the best option for him. Before he left, he needed to make sure his house was going to be taken care of. He also has a cat, and he is a lonely man so this cat has been a part of his life for many years and he loves it very much. So, before he leaves he asks a close work friend to watch over the house and stop by to feed the cat everyday while he is gone. His friend agrees and so the man leaves on his trip to London.

After being in London for 3 or 4 days he gets a phone call from his friend.

He starts by saying, “Oh hey! How is back home? I have had the most fun so far in my entire life here. Met a girl even. Everything going well over there? How’s my house?”

The friend is like, “Oh well… its been good. The house is fine, but I called you because something happened…”

“Oh god. What happened?”

“Well, I came by this morning to your house to feed your cat and I found him dead on the floor of the kitchen…”

“What? How did he die? Why did you tell me he died?”

“I don’t know how he died. He was fine the day before. I swear I didn’t kill him. I know this cat meant a lot to you and I am so sorry it had to happen while you are away.”

So kind of mumbling over the phone while thinking outlaid the man goes, “Ok.. well… he was getting old. I understand. Now I have to book a new flight and head back home tonight so I can handle this whole cat issue… I guess I can call the woman about our date and maybe she’ll understand and keep in touch..”

And the friend jumps in a says, “No, you don’t need to do that! Just tell me what you would like done with your cat and enjoy the rest of your trip.”

“How can I enjoy it knowing I’ll be coming home my a dead cat? In all seriousness, dude, why did you even tell me. Couldn’t it have waited till, like, the day before I was coming home?”

“I know, man. I’m sorry. I just didn’t know if you would want to know immediately or not. In hindsight I probably should have waited. But what could I have even said if you asked about how your cat was doing over the phone? I suck at lying.”

“I don’t know. I mean, you could had said something like, ‘Oh hey, something happened to your cat. He’s stuck on the roof and wont come down’ or whatever.”

“Alright well, I’m sorry. Had I known, I would’ve said that. I got to go, but call me later during your trip and I’ll let you know how everything else is going.”

So the guy is like, “OK, bye,” and per his friend’s advice decides to stay in London and call back home next week to check in.

The guy goes on a date with the woman he met and thinks he has found his match and, like, he is loving London and has even started to think about possibly extending his trip. The only thing is, the guy periodically keeps thinking about his cat and gets very sad knowing that he has died and wasn’t there to be with him. It doesn’t help that his new girlfriend, Catherine, goes by the nickname Cat. Nevertheless, a week goes by and he calls his friend back home.

“Hey, how’s everything going? Anyone miss me back there yet?”

His friend let’s out a small laugh and goes, “No, only me. Wish you were on your way back home…”

“Well, I was actually thinking of extending my trip… so I might stay in London a little bit longer. I love it here.”

And the friend is like, “Oh, don’t make me say it, dude!”

The guy is a little worried so he asks, “Did something else happen?”

After a short pause, the friend responds, “Well, yes. Your mom is stuck on the roof and wont come down.”

Context: The collector is the niece of the informant, and the original hearing of this joke was told at a dinner party. However, the transcription of the joke itself was collected at a later date from the same person. The story, from my memory, was relatively the same with subtle differences in the exact wording. The only wording that remained the exact same was the final quote from the friend.

Informant Analysis: The informant heard this joke from his best friend from college in Boston many years ago and said that he remembered it because he found it so hysterical. He said that his friend is from England originally so maybe that was the reason for the story always originating in England. He also said that he has told this joke probably more than 100 times to random people or friends if the time is right. Particularly, he noted that it is best told when people have been drinking. When asked why he thought the story was funny and what he thought it meant, he said that it was the relatability of being in a situation where you have to relay bad news to someone. He also said that he thought it is interesting to make a joke about something so serious and intimate as the death of one’s mother, and that if it meant anything, it meant that if there is anything that could possibly go wrong in a handful of situations, the death of one’s mother is perhaps the worst.

Collector Analysis: The easiest way to describe why this joke is told is because it is funny. However, the factor that makes a joke a joke is always because of its humor. So to merely analyze this shaggy-dog joke through its humor is not enough. Therefore, I am going to attempt to analyze it through its specific content.

With regard to content, this joke obviously plays upon the dark humor of death. There is something intrinsically funny to make light of dark situations. It is also very common. It has been studied that humor can work as a way to communicate pain more easily and even relate with the pain of others in an objective way. In this particular joke, despite the main character being at the receiving end of pain, there is also pain in the friend having to tell a son about the death of his cat and mother. I would argue that the humor doesn’t come from the protagonists pain, it actually comes from the pain of the friend being the herald of bad news. This joke also pokes at the natural tendency for people to avoid pain by utilizing euphemism or oblivion. The folk phrase, what you don’t know cant hurt you, seems like a common thread in this story. As we see, the cat’s death brings about the preferred euphemism the man would have like to hear. The phrase of “the cat is stuck on the roof and won’t coming down,” is a way to defer the pain much like the function of a euphemism. However, the joke made about this euphemism is that it can only be said when describing a cat— not an old woman. I believe the story also points to a liminal part in ones life where the identity of son is being ripped away, which is a commonality in many jokes. Furthermore, it points to timing and its occasional irony. This man who had never left the United States was suddenly met, at the exact time of his departure, with two deaths that necessitate him being home. There is entertainment in such horrific coincidence since most people can relate to bad timing of certain situations. There is another interpretation which may or may not have credibility: the relationship of the United States with England. England is considered the mother of the United States by many. It is curious that in this story, it is only upon the death of his mother that he must return home. Metaphorically speaking, it is the death of the motherland (England) that causes the man to return home. However, this may be considered too abstract for this particular joke lore.

Folk speech
Proverbs

The Cat that Got Burned

Do you have any sayings that you would like to share?

“Oh my god, my… my father-in-law always… one time told us that, uhh… something, when something bad happens to you, you get so scared, when you see anything, and then he told us whole… uhh… saying, that when the little cat got burned, just to see anywhere some ashes, he’s run away. He gets all scared. [laughs] Is one of them.”

 

Analysis: This is a short and straightforward proverb that’s supposed to be humorous. It lambasts the tendency of people, in this case represented by a small cat, to be overly cautious and afraid of something that they may have a negative association with, like fire. It seems that the informant’s culture really values wisdom learned through experience and risk-taking, as the proverb would appear to criticize those who are too cautious to the point of paranoia or excessive fear.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cat Over the Coffin

The informant, JT, is the mother of one of my friends. She is Vietnamese, and she grew up in Ho Chi Min City. Here she shares a superstition regarding funerals and her own personal experience with it:

“In the Vietnamese culture, when someone passes away, there are many things you are never supposed to do with the body. Autopsies are looked down upon by some more traditional people because the body should remain whole. If someone steals a part of the body, they may be able to do black magic with it. The person is never cremated either.

They dress the body in simple clothes and put it in the coffin, where they leave it there for about three days, so family and friends can pay their respects. But the coffin always has to be supervised, at all times. They say that if a cat jumps over the coffin, the lid will open and the person will wake up!

Let me tell you something! When I was 12, I walked by the house where they have the funerals, and I saw exactly that happen. They would keep the coffins outside so people could go to look at them. A stray cat from the street went to where the coffin was and jumped over- and the lid of the coffin flew open! I saw it with my own eyes and it was the scariest thing I ever saw in my entire life! The man sat up for a second, and then he lay down and went back to how he was before. I heard people say though- and I don’t know if this is true- that it’s possible for someone to wake up after the cat jumps and stay alive.

I guess it’s because they say that cats have nine lives, they don’t die like we do. It’s really freaky actually!

 

My thoughts: Cats feature in many superstitions around the world. They’re often associated with bad luck, witches, and even the devil. This may be because of the secretive and solitary nature of cats- they have a certain sense of mystery surrounding them. In this folk belief, the cat is associated with bad luck at funerals. Many other cultures also have superstitions involving people coming back to life at their own funerals or wakes. This could be due to the fact that before modern medicine it was harder to determine whether the person in question had actually died. So there may have been real life cases were people seemed to come back from the dead when they were really never dead to begin with that in turn inspired folk beliefs such as this one.

I noted that superstitions still play an important part in the funeral traditions of Vietnam often clashing with the “modern” and the “scientific”, such as autopsies.

Game
general

“Mishka, mishka, mushka… Katikatushka!”

One day while hanging out with my friend, I was being playful by pretending to play the childish game of “peekaboo.” To my surprise, she responded by saying, “mishka, mishka, mushka… Katikatushka!” Then she went on to explain that this is a Russian kids’ game similar in concept to “peekaboo.” When she first explained it to me, she thought that “mishka” meant “mouse” and that  “katikatushka” meant “cat.” Therefore, the literal translation was supposedly, “mouse, mouse, mouse… cat!” But as I will explain after my interview with her, it turns out that’s not exactly the case.

Informant: “So, ‘mishka’ is a game that my dad used to play when I was very little. I would sit on his lap, and it’s the cat and mouse game, so… ok, it goes, you get really small like a mouse, and you go “mishka, mishka, mushka… and then you get really big and tickle the person and you go like, KATIKATUSHKA!!” which apparently, I asked my Russian friend what that means, and I think one of them means ‘bear.’ Or it means ‘big bear’ so maybe my dad lied to me… he didn’t know the actual names. So maybe it’s like ‘mouse, mouse, mouse, BIG BEAR!’

Collector: “Instead of ‘cat’?”

Informant: “Yeah. But he always thought it was ‘cat and mouse.’”

Collector: “Where does your dad get it from, do you know?”

Informant: “Probably his mother. His mother was a gregarious Russian woman.”

Collector: “Is this maybe a traditional Russian nursery rhyme or child’s game?”

Informant: “Yeah, I’ve heard other people who are Russian know of it as well”

Collector: “Do you know of this existing in other languages, or other cultures?”

Informant: “I haven’t heard of it, have you?”

Collector: “No, I haven’t either”

Informant: “But I think the game of surprise is always common…”

Collector: “Yeah, just in different forms”

Informant: “Yeah, like ‘peekaboo,’ similar…”

Collector: “And when you were little, was this just supposed to be a scary little, messing with you as a little kid game? I mean it sounds playful, but do you think it had any other purpose other than just pure playfulness?”

Informant: “Yeah, I think it was a way to connect… I think it was something to do, like ‘I’m bored, what do you wanna do?’ ‘I don’t know… let’s play the cat and mouse game!!’ you know, cause you tickle each other and you laugh! And then it ends in tickle fight”

After interviewing the informer, I looked up the meaning of “mishka,” “mushka,” and “katikatushka,” to almost no avail. There seem to be many words with similar spellings and pronunciations, but different meanings in Russian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian. So instead of attempting to translate from Russian to English, I used google translate to find the Russian words for mouse, cat, and bear. According to google, mouse is “mysh,'” pronounced “moosh.” Cat is “kot,” pronounced “khot.” And bear is “nesti,” pronounced “neesty.” So I’m not sure how my friend’s dad’s game got translated interpreted at cat and mouse, because although there is a slight resemblance to the words I found via google translate, they seem too far off to be correct. Perhaps there’s variations of the same word depending on the tense and other grammatical rules. Or perhaps the language of the game got mixed up as it was passed down generations of Americans from Russian descent.

Musical

Tuntun-Tuntun-Taara

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Chhat par billi bhaagi hai,

Neend se (Baby) jaagi hai

Chhat par billi bhaagi hai,

Neend se (Baby) jaagi hai

Billi ne chuhe ko maara

Hai!

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

Galli me bola chawkidaar,

“Choron se rehna hushiyar”

Galli me bola chawkidaar,

“Choron se rehna hushiyar”

Chawkidaar ne chor ko maara

Hai!

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

Baje raat ke baaran

 

Translation:

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

It struck 12 o’clock (Chorus)

Tuntun-tuntun-taara

It struck 12 o’clock

The cat ran along the roof

(Baby) woke up from her sleep

The cat ran along the roof

(Baby) woke up from her sleep

The cat killed the mouse

Hai!

(Chorus) x 2

In the street the guardsman said,

“Beware of thieves!”

In the street the guardsman said,

“Beware of thieves!”

The guard killed the thief

Hai!

(Chorus)

Analysis: For some reason, similar to many Western nursery rhymes and lullabies, this song is a particularly violent one. It talks about the elimination of a small threat (a mouse) and then of a much larger, much more serious threat (a thief). But this elimination takes place in a very definitive, violent manner–murder, essentially. Unlike Western lullabies, however (some that come to mind are Rockabye Baby, Rain Rain Go Away, Old Daddy Long Legs, and Sing a Song of Sixpence), the violence is not perpetrated on children or seemingly innocent bystanders, but on entities who do pose a real threat to the health and safety of the child and indeed the whole family and therefore could be said to “deserve what they got”. Mice spread disease and could ruin a family’s crop and thereby cause them to starve. Thieves also could cause financial ruin and would not hesitate to do away with any family member who discovered them robbing the house in the dead of night. In rural areas, or places that didn’t have a very trustworthy law enforcement and protection system, the idea that there were people (or animals) that would be able to protect a child from harm must have been very comforting.

Folk speech
Humor

“Ah Ma Schwartz Katter”

“When somebody’s being lame, or kind of a wet blanket, there’s, I mean, okay, I mean, there’s two of them. One of them is “ah ma schwartz katter” which is “oh, my poor little black cat,” and that’s for if they’re being silly. So, just, for instance, if someone is like, ‘oh, poor pathetic me!’ it’s ‘ah, ma Schwartz katter,’ [she mimics patting someone on the head in mock sympathy]. And then sometimes I do a variation on it, which I don’t know if it’s even correct or not, but it’s ‘ah ma brune katter,’ which is ‘ah, my little brown cat.’ But honest to god, it’s probably a huge bastardization of German, I know the actual one when I’m saying it is correct, but I don’t know the actual spelling of it, because my mother did not deem to teach me it.”

 

It’s like saying “oh, poor thing,” but it’s a little bit mocking. The informant uses the brune version because sometimes she likes to “mix it up,” and because her cat is brown. Usually, when she is saying this to someone, it’s her mother (because her father doesn’t “get it”), and she uses the brune version because her mother’s hair is brown.

The informant first learned this when she was about seven from her mother, (who speaks multiple languages, including German). Both she and her mother are of German descent.

This is a good demonstration of how foreign languages are kept partially alive and spread throughout generations who may not be fluent in it. Sayings are easy to remember because of their brevity and they also seem to create strong bonds between those who say them (e.g. the informant here shares this with her mother and brother, but not outside her family or even with her father).

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