USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘english’
Folk speech
Proverbs

You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Informant: You can’t see the forest for the trees.

The informant (my grandmother) was born and raised in Texas. She spent many years moving from place to place across the world with her husband, a banker, before settling in Connecticut long enough to work as an English teacher at the Greenwich Country Day School. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

The informant told me that she told this proverb to her students when they failed to see the bigger picture of her class as a whole. When students complained that endless grammar worksheets were “boring,” she pointed out that they were looking at only a tree in the larger forest; grammar worksheets were an important part of building a greater ecosystem of knowledge of the English language.

This proverb appears in John Heywood’s 1546 collection of proverbs.

Citation: Heywood, John, and Julian Sharman. The Proverbs of John Heywood. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1874. Print.
Folk speech
Game
Humor
Proverbs

“Last one there is a rotten egg!”

The informant first heard this when he was in elementary school, about age six or seven, while attending the after school day care with twenty or so other students.  After school the students would be walking when one of them would spot the babysitter’s car and would yell, “Last one there is a rotten egg!”  All of the students then sprint to the car and upon reaching it, touch a doorknob or any part of the car.  The last student to touch the car is the “rotten egg” and is labeled the “rotten egg” for that round.  Nothing in particular happens to the rotten egg, but the student is singled out as the slowest one.  This is similar to the game “Duck, duck, goose” where there is a mushpot where the students who are too slow to catch their goose have to sit until someone can replace them.  The informant no longer plays this game, but believes it to be a good form of entertainment for kids.

Though it is a game played among children, it is often the parents or guardians who first introduce the game to their kids.  However, it is very rare that you can find a parent playing this game with their child, since the advantages of being an adult are obvious and the game would be unfair.  The informant is good with children and often uses this game to bring children together to play, and to keep them attracted to a focal point so that they will stay together in one group and not cause too much trouble by becoming out of hand.  This is also a useful tactic for babysitters and day care personnel as well.  The idea of a rotten egg probably came from the idea that nobody wants to be something smelly like a rotten egg, so they want to win the game.

Folk speech
Humor
Riddle

Chinese-English Spider Joke

蜘蛛是什么颜色? 白色. 是白的.
Translated: What color is a spider? White. It is white.

This joke was heard at a Christmas party for a company that was predominantly made up of Chinese people.  This joke requires an understanding of both English and Chinese in order to fully understand the punch line.  At first, the question seems relatively easy as it is just asking the audience what color is a spider.  Audience members tended to yell out colors such as black or brown.  At this point, the informant would yell out “白色” (pronounced “bai se”), which means white in Chinese.  Then after hearing the confusions from the audience members, the informant would say, “是白的” (“It is white” in Engllish), which is pronounced, “Sh bai de.”  As an English speaker can see, that particular phrase sounds like the word “spider.”

My informant told me that he heard this joke first when he was learning English after coming toAmerica.  He told me that he felt a sense of accomplishment when he was able to understand the punch line as it marked his achievement in English comprehension.  For me, this poem is a symbol for the blending of English/American and Chinese culture since the two respective languages are necessary for this joke.

Folk speech
Proverbs

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

 

My informant who is currently a first-year college student first heard this proverb in his elementary school in Downey, CA from his teacher in third grade.  There had been a problem with certain kids being targets for bullies in class.  The teacher decided to address this issue to the class.  She told everyone to remember that even though physical pain cannot be helped, you can always choose how to take words from others.  The only way words have power is when the person allows them to hurt him or her.

This proverb is not usually used on adults but mostly on children.  I do not think this proverb can apply to adults as well because the circumstances are different.  When children taunt, the taunting consists of silly rhymes, sticking out the tongue and such whereas when adults exchange harsh words with each other, those words are personal and have the ability to hit someone at a vulnerable spot.  Parents and teachers teach young children about not allowing words to hurt them because many children tend to pick on others not for any legitimate reasons of dislike but from mere prejudice.  I believe this proverb can apply very well to children but not to adults.

Folk speech
Proverbs

What comes around goes around.

“What comes around goes around.”

 

My informant first heard this proverb actually told to him a couple of years ago when he was sixteen years old.  He had been having fun while two-timing two girls, but eventually they found out about his infidelity.  A few months later after he cut his ties with both girls, he wanted to start fresh and leave that incident behind him.  When he was introduced to another girl who was from Fullerton, CA through a friend, he was extremely smitten with her.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, he had become a notorious topic among the girls.  The girl completely ignored him and appeared disinterested.  His friend later that night told Andrew that she already had heard the rumors about him and had said about him, “What comes around goes around.”  She had no guilt in snubbing him because he deserved it for his past wrongdoing.

This idea of karma is interesting because people feel relieved from the sense of justice.  Your transgressions will always come back to haunt you.  I do believe that what goes around comes around.  Conversely if you do beneficial activities, your goodness will somehow be rewarded later.  I believe this proverb has the intention of promoting good behavior while discouraging bad behavior.  I hear this proverb often in dealings with romantic relationships; when someone breaks another’s heart, that someone is bound to have his or her heart broken, too.  I tie in this proverb closely with another one: “What goes up must come down.”  Both advise that your actions have consequences in the future.

Annotation: This proverb is the title of the popular song by American singer Justin Timberlake, “What Comes Around Goes Around.”

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Bayberry Candle

My Mother said that growing up, her mother would always burn a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve for good luck and that they would also burn it on New Years Day for good luck. It would burn the entire day until it the wax ran out.

According to my mother, this tradition comes from England, and then was continued as a New England tradition during colonial times. My mother told me that her mother’s side was English, and had the last name of Trasp, which is where the tradition of burning the candle came from in her family. She was not sure why it was a bayberry candle was burned, however.

My mother said that it wasn’t a tradition to make the candle, they usually just bought it. But the candle comes from the wax scraped off the berries of the bayberry shrub, and the bayberry plant is found in both Europe and North America.

This is interesting because in earlier colonial times the bayberry wax would be collected, perhaps because the animal fat used to make candles was scarce. Now the candles are made from other materials, with the bayberry scent, and burned for the sake of tradition.

The interesting thing that I found was that there were many traditional things that my mother did for good luck that came from different regions, and the bayberry candle was just one of them. There were multiple traditions around the holidays and my mother said they did them all, from burning a bayberry candle to a traditional German New Year’s dinner.

Folk speech
Proverbs

“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

My informant told me that her mother was the first person to tell her this phrase. When my informant was a teenager she had a boyfriend that  treated other people with disrespect all the time. my informant could not take his attitude anymore so she had to split up with him. This left her wondering if she actually did the right thing. When she consulted her mother about it, her mother said, “Well, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”, and left it at that.

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