USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘children’s lore’
general
Humor
Musical

Napoleon Rhyme

INFORMANT: The informant is my fifteen-year-old sister, who lives in Washington, D.C. We both attended a french-language school until 2014, and this is one of the songs we used to sing as children.

CONTEXT: The informant heard this rhyme from one of her friends in the fourth grade when they started covering Napoleon in their class curriculum. According to her, this is a common rhyme taught to kids by other kids.

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MAIN PIECE:

Original: “Napoléon est mort à Sainte-Hélène/Son fils Léon lui a crevé l’bidon/On l’a retrouvé assis sur une baleine/En train d’sucer des arêtes de poisson”

Translation: “Napoleon died at Sainte-Helene/His son Leon gutted his belly [informal]/They found him sitting on a whale/Sucking on fish bones”

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I think this rhyme is a really interesting example of children’s lore. In general, kids seem to have the instinct to rebel against authority, and this often takes the form of mocking authority figures. In French classrooms, Napoleon is presented to children as somewhat of a legendary figure, so it would make sense that kids would create rhymes about Napoleon, given how venerated he is in French history. As someone who is seen as kind of a silly historical figure outside of France, Napoleon is also a fairly easy target for mockery (he inspired the term “Napoleon Complex,” used to describe people who try to compensate for their short height with overconfidence and ego). I think it also is interesting to observe the difference between what kids’ games and rhymes they learn from adults and what they teach each other; nursery rhymes and tales told and taught to children by adults tend to be more tame, while the things children pass down to other children usually to contain counter-hegemonic themes and seem to be more risqué or vulgar. This is somewhat reflected in the grammar of the rhyme as well. Grammar is an extremely important part of the French curriculum, and is constantly emphasized throughout both primary and secondary school. The use of contractions in the rhyme is another way that it is rebellious.

For another version of this rhyme, see “Napoleon” from Momes.net (http://www.momes.net/Comptines/Comptines-pour-rire/Napoleon)

Tales /märchen

Enkoye Totit–Ethiopian bedtime story

The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about Enkoye Totit, bedtime story her mother and aunts told her when she was little.

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“So, Enkoye Totit is this little monkey character who keeps getting in trouble. It’s a bedtime story that parents tell their kids. It’s like, there’s not really one specific story I can think of about Enkoye Totit, but she’s a character that you can insert in any story. Totit means, like, little monkey. It’s like a diminutive of “tota,” which means monkey. That’s what parents call their kids. Like, it’s a nickname for kids when they’re being silly or misbehaving but not actually doing something that bad. Like if you keep annoying your mom, she’ll call you Tota.”

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The fact that “monkey” is both a word referring to the animal and an term of affection for young children in Amharic is interesting, because it allows these stories to become self-insert stories for the children they are told to. Because Enkoye Totit is a stock character and not one from a specific story, it allows parents to plug this character, as an extension of their own children, into many different plots that will be vehicles for lessons they want to teach their kids. This is also reinforced by the characteristics of a monkey–small, mischievous, intelligent, inquisitive–most of which are also applicable to children. At the same time, because there are actual monkeys in Ethiopia, this fact might be less obvious to Ethiopian children, since the stories are based on a monkey that they could actually encounter, but because both my cousin and I were raised in the United States where monkeys do not live in nature, the metaphorical nature of these stories becomes more apparent.

Legends

Ethiopian bogeyman

The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about a character called Soyo, which is an Ethiopian bogeyman character used to scare children.

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“So, Soyo is basically this character, like a scary kidnapper character, that parents use to scare their kids. It’s basically like the Ethiopian version of Slenderman…and kind of, also, like, “stranger danger” So, like, if you’re being bad, or misbehaving–like, when I was little, my mom used to make me come inside at night by being like, “oh, if you keep playing outside after it gets dark, Soyo is going to come get you.”

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This bogeyman figure is an example of the concept of “ficts” as introduced by Von Sydow: these characters are fictional creatures that adults make up to scare children, or to teach them how to behave (examples include Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, but also bogeyman characters like this one). I thought that Soyo was an interesting example of children’s folklore in that it does not exist in the world of adult belief, but it is almost exclusively told by adults to their children rather than told between children; children would not have these characters if adults did not use them as lessons for their kids. The purpose that this particular character serves is to teach children not to trust strangers, but is also a convenient way for parents to scare their kids into obeying them. I also thought it was a cool reaffirmation of Dundes’s idea of “multiplicity and variation,” because every culture seems to have a bogeyman character (La Llorona in Mexico, for example, or, as my cousin mentioned, the more recent example of Slenderman).

Game
general

Squirelly Tag

The informant is the sixteen-year-old sister of a friend of mine who lives in Rye, New York. She reminded me of a game we invented as kids and used to play whenever we were at each other’s houses.

Note: The initials OF denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

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OF: So. basically, it’s hide-and-seek, but also freeze tag, but it’s in the dark. With flashlights. So basically someone is it…well, first, you turn the lights out, and everyone has flashlights. And someone is it, and everyone else hides. And you can switch around hiding locations, as long as whoever’s it doesn’t catch you. So the person who is it has their flashlight on, and goes around looking for everyone else. And if they find you, you have to run. If they can tag you, you have to freeze, but if someone else who hasn’t been frozen yet comes and tags you, you’re allowed to unfreeze. And basically the game ends when whoever is it manages to freeze everyone else.”

A: Why does it have to be in the dark? What do you think that means?

OF: Nothing, I don’t think. It was more exciting. It’s, like, a thrill to be running around in the dark, which is stupid, I guess, because it was so much easier to trip over stuff. But we didn’t care.

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I think it’s funny that kids “invent” games, but these games are almost always variants of other games they already know. It relates back to the idea that every text is a variation of another text that we discussed in class; because almost everything has already been created, we can only “create” versions of things that already exist. I also think children’s games that kids themselves create, and children’s lore itself, are interesting, because they have only really become as widespread as they are after the first child-labor laws. These laws effectively “invented” childhood, because before they were put in place, children didn’t have the time to sit around creating weird new games, nor could they socialize with the other kids with whom they would create such games.

Game
general
Kinesthetic

Chicken Games – Proving Personal Vigor in American Childhood

Item:

M: Most of the games I had, like, heard about and observed were all the, like, chicken games where it’s like, “ah yeah, take an eraser over your knuckles. Whoever wimps out first loses.”

R: Well of course they- did you play quarters**?

M: Yeah, or um, slaps.  This is where people would like, hold the other person’s hand, slap each other as hard as they can

E: Until someone gave up.

M: Until someone gave out.

E: It’s so stupid I hated it.

A: A version I played was when you did the middle finger thing to their forearm until they gave out.  And you’d end up with these giant red spots.

 

Context:

**Quarters was understood by all as a game where each player places his fist knuckles down on the table and shoots quarters at the other until someone gave out.

I collected this piece about chicken games while hanging out with friends from the University of Southern California and we all began to talk about the games from our childhoods.  One of the participants in the conversation, denoted as ‘M’ , brought up chicken games from his elementary and middle school days, prompting others to contribute the variations they knew of and demonstrating on themselves when necessary.  Each interlocutor is denoted by a different letter.  The interlocutors were students of the University of Southern California, but of different class standings and two had already graduated.  The first informant, ‘M’, is a sophomore who went to elementary school on a military base in Japan but middle and high school in Texas; ‘R’ is a Ph.D. student who grew up in Maryland and Michigan; ‘E’ graduated in 2018 and grew up in Lompoc, CA; and ‘A’ graduated in 2018 and grew up in San Diego, CA.  They all brought up these games as something they had either observed or participated in during either middle or elementary school years, saying they viewed it as something either funny (a common opinion amongst the males) or stupid (as said by the only other female in the conversation aside from myself) at the time, but particularly viewing it as stupid nowadays.  There was also a general consensus that most kids would abandon these games by late middle school (8th grade) at the latest.

 

Analysis:

The wide range in age of the interlocutors is very indicative of how long these chicken games perpetuated, particularly with how the oldest interlocuter is ten years older than the youngest interlocuter.  Since you would pick these games up from other kids, it would make sense that as the older kids pass them down to the younger kids, they would continue through the years, particularly through neighborhood interactions where groups were not necessarily divided by age.  Another interesting point was the wide variety of locations in which each of the interlocuters grew up and/or attended elementary and middle school.  There were locations all over the United States, and even abroad in an American community overseas; I also knew of these games while growing up in Virginia.  As such, these chicken games are likely a part of greater American school-age children’s culture, especially amongst younger children because there was a general consensus that these games were abandoned once late middle school years came around.

What is more important, though, is why children would partake in these kinds of games, especially when they sometimes left physical marks on the body as mentioned by ‘A’ in the exchange above.  Particularly in the institutionalized schooling structure of the US, children are all brought up to think in particular ways and learn specific things and as such there can be a large sense of homogeneity among them.  These chicken games can establish another type of identity that is more counterhegemonic, considering these games were often strictly ruled against in schools and looked down upon by parents.  They can also establish a power dynamic amongst children who might otherwise be in an egalitarian environment.  If children can establish themselves as the strongest or the bravest in these games, it gives them something else to identify themselves with, which is why leaving marks may also be apart of why they take part in these games in the first place.  They become victorious signifiers of glory and pride, somewhat like battle scars; this also becomes significant when considering how children become increasingly aware of their bodies and their physical images as they get older.  These games were more popular among boys and with American culture so heavily centered around physical strength in men, these chicken games may be their attempts to embody these ideas from early on.  As for why they typically died out during middle and high school, partaking in certain subcultures becomes increasingly more significant during this time as children becoming adolescents begin to further explore who they want to be; these subculture identities begin to take more precedence moving out of elementary years.  This can correlate with why chicken games die out as students get older and more mature because they would no longer need these trivial markers of identity.

 

Additional Interlocuter Information:

The informant description for ‘M’ is in the section above the item, and the same information for each of the other informants is included below.

‘R’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 29; Occupation: Ph.D. Student; Residence: Los Angeles; Primary Language: English

‘E’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 22; Occupation: Non-Profit Arts Administrator; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Language(s): Italian

‘A’ – Nationality: American-born Taiwanese; Age: 22; Occupation: Digital Marketing/Entrepreneur; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Language(s): Mandarin, Japanese

Game
general

MASH – A Game to Predict Your Future

Item:

E: MASH is- is a game, um, where it stands- it stands for mansion, apartment,

S: (simultaneously with ‘E’) shack, and house

E: and then there were different categories.  And how I played it you could always customize your categories, but it was usually always something along the lines of the pet you’re gonna have, the car you’re gonna have, your job, your husband, or wife, blah blah blah blah

S: Who’s gonna be your husband, or wife.

E: How many kids you have, that was a popular one. And then you would, um…

S: Salary!

E: You played with salary? That’s terrifying

Q: That’s a little too high stakes!

S: We were really hardcore middle schoolers man

E: And then you would write it all down.  And then you would, um, you would say start and go and you would draw lines until you said stop and that would be the amount of times the person would just go down the list counting and crossing things out, and then whatever was left was, uh, your prediction for your future life.

 

Context:

This piece was collecting while hanging out with friends from the University of Southern California and we all began to talk about the games from our childhoods or school days.  Some of us even played them again now as college students, including but not limited to MASH as described above.  After this exchange, we proceeded to play a few rounds of MASH choosing the following categories: husband/wife, occupation, husband’s/wife’s occupation, salary, husband’s/wife’s salary, car, number of children, place, and pet.  The person whose future was being predicted chose three things to place in each category and the others in the room chose the last, usually an unfavorable choice, for a total of four items.  We also restricted the husband/wife options to those who were in the room at the time.  The counting number was determined by me drawing lines until the person said stop, then I counted through the categories back-to-back, crossing out the one I landed on each time.  Once I finished the categories, I counted through MASH at the top and then we read out the person’s future to the room.

The two informants were both females, and a majority of those who chose to play were female as well, but the person whose future was predicted was male.  The two informants grew up in different places and we have age differences of a few years between each of us.  ‘S’ in the exchange above grew up in Michigan and primarily played this game during middle school.  ‘E’ in the exchange above grew up in California, and mentioned how she would play the game with her friends at “every sleepover ever.”  There was a general consensus that primarily it was girls that would play MASH.

 

Analysis:

I played MASH quite a bit as well while going to middle school in Virginia.  It was mainly just a fun way to pass the time at that age.  The fact that it was so widespread and so popular for a period of time may be because it is an easy pen and paper activity that is simple to learn, customize, and pass on, but I believe there is another reason why it was so popular, especially during middle school years.  At its core, MASH is a game about predicting the future, and this practice existed long before the game existed.  People have a desire to predict the future so that they have more control over it and can decrease their anxiety about what may come.  Especially for middle schoolers, when most children are now going through puberty and beginning a transition into adolescence and eventually adulthood, there can be great uncertainty about the future.   MASH, then, becomes an unconscious way to plan out and/or predict the future in a completely low risk, zero consequence, and even humorous environment.  There may be even a hint of belief in its prediction power for some, indicated by how you would primarily put choices you wanted under each category.  Furthermore, the particular anxieties can be extrapolated from the categories chosen.  These categories may be completely trivial and entertaining (e.g. Type of Pet) or they can reveal desires regarding social class (e.g. Salary, MASH) and gender roles, particularly for females (e.g. Number of Children, Occupation).  Even the common addition of an undesirable choice to each of the categories, when it is known that there is a possibility it may be picked, indicates an awareness that the future may not always be in their favor.  On the surface, MASH may seem like just a funny way to pass the time and be entertained due to the improbable nature of the results, but all things considered, it seems to be a way for middle-school age children to overcome their anxieties about the future in a time where they are going through a number of changes, both physical and psychological.

 

Additional Informant Data:

The informant data for the interlocuter denoted by ‘E’ is included in the section above the item.  The same data for the other informant is included below.

‘S’ – Nationality: USA; Age: 26; Occupation: Ph.D. Student; Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Primary Language: English; Other Languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Signs

The Headless Drummer Boy

Context:

I conducted this interview over the phone, the subject was born and raised in Scotland before moving to England, Canada, the United States, then to Northern Ireland, and, finally, back to the United States. I knew she continued to practice certain traditions which were heavily present in her childhood and wanted to ask her more about them.

 

Piece:

Subject: Grandpa used to tell us this ghost story when we were kids about a drummer boy who had no head and would patrol the castles in Scotland. I have no idea why he’s headless or what happened, but he would sometimes get lost from the castle and show up to houses and play the drum to find his way home.

Interviewer: Was he scary at all?

Subject: Yeah, it was meant to scare us, cuz I think if you heard the drum it meant bad things were coming because the boy was so mad that he couldn’t find his way home.

Interviewer: Did it scare you?

Subject: When I was a kid it was frightening!

 

Analysis:

I looked up this scary story to find The Headless Drummer is a known tale in Scotland. According to visitscotland.com, “His identity and the story behind his decapitation remain a mystery, but it is said he made his first appearance in 1650. This was the fateful year Oliver Cromwell launched his invasion of Scotland which culminated in the capture of the castle following a three month siege.” I think there’s a certain fascination with young children who die at the hands of war, or defending something larger than their innocent selves. It’s a sad, glum fascination, but it’s clearly tied heavily to their past.

Source:

Fanthorpe, Lionel, and Patricia Fanthorpe. Mysteries and Secrets: The 16-Book Complete Codex. Dundurn, 2014.

 

Folk speech
Humor

Tweet Tweet!

Context:

The subject is a child in elementary school. I asked him if they had any inside jokes that they could share with me and this is what they said.  

 

Piece:

Subject: At school we had a rainy day one time and  at lunch the teacher wasn’t in our room so the visor lady would check on us sometimes. And, but we wanted to go on our iPods cause we can’t do that with the teacher there. So we had someone stay watch at the window and every time the visor lady would come they would yell “Tweet tweet” and then we’d put all our stuff away for when she’d come in and check. And we’d switch off sometimes on who would watch the window.

Interviewer: That’s really smart. So do you only do it on rainy days?

Subject: We started doing it at lunch and stuff when it’s not raining so that we can go onto our iPods on the playground and stuff.

Interviewer: Have you gotten caught?

Subject: No, not yet. I don’t think we will cuz it’s a pretty good plan, we always know when there’s a teacher or a visor lady around.

 

Analysis:

I think this is a common experience in childhood. Despite the addition of the technological advancement in the iPod, someone’s always delegated to be the lookout for adults on the playground. It’s comforting to know that certain things just don’t change.

 

Folk speech
Proverbs

Silence Is Not Always Golden

Item:

“Be wary of silent dogs and still waters.”

Context: 

The source interviewed related his personal experiences with this particular proverb – “Growing up, I always made the wrong friends. I didn’t know they were the wrong friends, but my dad did. Because he was my dad, and he knew everything. My friends were those people who would be incredibly sweet and make easy conversation, but would be very guarded around other people about their own secrets and opinions. One day, I stumbled upon these guys talking the classroom. I was outside in the corridor, and they didn’t know that I was there and listening to them. Naturally, they were talking about me. And they said some things that I can’t repeat in front of you. Upset, I went home and complained to my dad, who told me ‘Be wary of silent dogs and still waters’ – meaning it in particular about people who don’t voice their opinions on others frankly and instead plot and scheme behind the backs of others.”

Analysis:

This proverb is a classic Indian warning against people who don’t talk. Indian people in general are quite talkative, never hesitating to share their opinions, even and sometimes especially when it proves to awkward or unwanted. Therefore, when people aren’t talking, it means that they must be up to something. So, when someone isn’t being obnoxiously vocal about their opinions on your personality, sever all ties with them, because they probably don’t like or care about you.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs

A Big White Van

Item and Context:

“My seniors in school – the eighth graders – would always tell us to ‘Never trust a man in a big white van!’ We were all really interested in why, especially because my friend Evan thought that white vans were pretty cool. Haha, no… So he, bold as he is, went up to one of the many eighth graders repeating this warning and asked them what the story was. When he returned, he informed me that it was because this one kid from our middle school had been kidnapped by a man in a big white van and held for ransom! So when a friend of mine asked me about it, I repeated to him exactly what Evan had told me. After a few days, there was a rumor spreading around the school that the man in a big white van had taken away one of the students many years ago, and that student had been held for ransom, and when the parents failed to come up with the cash, the kid was murdered and his spirit was the one telling the eighth graders to ‘Never trust a man in a big white van!’! I did not understand how this happened. I assume that it traveled from Evan to me to A to B to C and so on, finally resulting in this wild exaggeration. How strange, no?”

Analysis:

The proverb/superstition that this story is based on is an example of children’s lore. However, what is most interesting is that while it is an example of a type of folklore, the story the informant provided is also a perfect depiction of exactly how folklore happens. I doubt that his friend was even told about a “ransom”, and instead added that detail just to spice up the story. As the story went around the middle school, everyone freely added their own details to it, resulting in something starkly different than what these eighth graders were probably talking about, much like the game ‘Telephone’, which is also an excellent example of the process of folklore creation. The belief that the warning is based on is that large, white, unmarked vans are usually driven by creepy pedophiles who offer little girls candy and then whisk them away. Hence, according to the informant and his seniors at school – ‘Never trust a man in a big white van!’

 

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