Informant is a 20 year-old, female, college student studying at the University of Southern California. She is half Japanese and half Chinese.
Informant: I know this saying called “You are the bee’s knees.”
Collector: What does this saying mean to you?
Informant: It just means that someone is really wonderful. That someone’s really great. The person that you’re calling the bee’s knees is someone you really like and admire.
Collector: Where did you learn this?
Informant: I’ve always just heard it around. I hear people say it from time to time.
Collector: Why do you like it?
Informant: I just think it’s cute. And also it’s something that I hear a lot.
I think that people say this because it sounds cute–bee’s rhymes with knees, and expressions that rhyme catch on. Also, there’s this idea that bee’s knees are very delicate, and the person that you’re describing is delicate and delightful. On a scientific level, bees collect nectar from flowers on their limbs, so in a way, the sweetness on the bee’s knees can be used to describe someone who is sweet.
My informant told me about two new expressions that I had never heard before: “scarcer than hensteeth” and “some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers.” She says her father still uses these phrases to this day, but they derive from the early 1900s. She has heard her father use them since she was really little, but her father said they were sayings his great-grandfather had said (my informant’s great-great grandfather) and it just “passed down the line.” Surprisingly, her great-great grandfather who was from Nebraska didn’t own a chicken farm, but instead a corn farm that apparently had a lot of chickens.
As told by her grandfather and father, the first expression – “scarcer than hensteeth” – was a Great Depression metaphor. She explained the meaning: “Obviously hen don’t have teeth, so if you have anything less than that you’re screwed. For example, if a conversation was like… ‘How’s the money going?’ And you respond, ‘Scarcer than hensteeth,’ it basically means you don’t have shit.” Oftentimes, she still uses the phrase “just to make a point.” She also said that even though the phrase is just shy than a century years old, people still understand the point she tries to make.
The second expression – “Some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers” – deals with a gambling type of situation, which could most definitely be directed toward situations like with farming. To take the phrase literally, it means that some days you go hungry, while other days you can have your fill. She related this saying to: “sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.” Recently, though, she had a conversation with her father about the expression and a new outlook was presented. She said that she also noticed a more positive spin; that either day, it doesn’t matter if you got the chicken or the feathers, “you end up getting the filling for a pillow.” In other words, you make use of what you wind up with in the end.
These expressions have been such a part of my informant’s upbringing that she tries to integrate them into everyday conversation whenever she can. She is very in touch with her family history and in an effort to someday impart these historical familial idioms on to her children, she tries to maintain them in conversation. These sayings may have just been popular during the time period of her great-great grandfather, but the fact that she, her father, grandfather and great-grandfather have continually used them through their lives illustrates a vocal transaction that can survive generations. The fact that they have actively tried to preserve these expressions shows a type of folklore that can be limited to family.
Informant: “The problem with the Hungarian language is that you cannot learn it. It is something you are born with. I can never figure out, I speak it, but I can never figure out how it is put together. Like, for instance- oh this is going to sound bad. You are saying, ‘the wind is blowing’. Now you say, ‘blow the wind’, ok? The word blow is ‘fúj’. So it is ‘fúj a víz. The water is flowing.’ My mother used to say to me ‘fújd ki az orrod.’ Which means, ‘blow out your nose!’
My father used to say some other things that weren’t too nice. He would get a delivery- he was a handbag maker, he would get a delivery or material or something and he would open the package and say, ‘this is not what I ordered’. But he would get mad; he would say ‘akkor kapsz csapott az arcába!’ which means, ‘may you get slapped in the face!’ And the other one is when he really got mad he would say, ‘May hell eat it, or eat you! Pokol lehel megenni, vagy megenni!‘ Now there are others, but they really are not translatable.”
In my research I was not able to confirm if the two expressions are commonly used. My informant’s father was known to have a bad temper, therefore it was of no surprise to me to hear that his father used to use profanity against the delivery man. My informant teased that the Hungarian language contains many swearing expressions, and a common joke is that in Hungarian you can swear for 5 minutes and not use the same word twice. However, I do not think that the use of profanity in the Hungarian language is any different than the use of profanity in other languages in that there is a time and place for it’s usage. I found that the expressions in my research were much more vulgar than the ones my informant told me, but as my informant later expressed to me he was not comfortable saying such vulgar things to a young lady. Prior to this interview, I had never heard my informant use either phrase or speak Hungarian unless I asked him to.
My informant was born to Hungarian immigrants in 1928 Paris, France. He later immigrated to California in 1947, having spent much of War World II in hiding due to his Jewish heritage. He holds multiple citizenships in both the United States and France. He now lives in Manhattan Beach, California with his wife and has three children and five grandchildren.