Tag Archives: folk speech

Uncle Kiki’s Toenails: Indonesian Tongue Twister


MS: “Oh do you remember that tongue twister you taught me? Where did you learn that?”

SL: “Oh yeah! My mom taught me that – hold on, let me make sure I get this right, okay.

“Keke kake kiki ko kuku kaki kake ko kaku ke”

SL: “So that’s like a tongue twister that my mom taught me when I was younger and it’s really (laughter) stupid. It’s just, it’s really childish. “Keke” means  – it’s just a slang word for Uncle and then “kake” is the actual word for uncle or just like an older man. And his name is “kiki”. “ko kuku kaki” so why are your toenails so like sharp (laughter). And that is the gist of the story.”

MS: “Is this just a your family type of thing or is it pretty common tongue twister?”

SL: “I think it’s a pretty popular tongue twister but it is said in different forms.”

MS: “Do the other kids of your family also know or use it frequently?”

SL: “I think they would definitely know what it is but I think I’m the most like in tune with a lot of the Indonesian words like slang and…so I don’t think they would necessarily register what I’m saying – it’s just like why are you saying these words to me?”



The informant is an Indonesian-Chinese-American college student, who has lived in California her whole life. This conversation took place in my apartment while the informant and I, among a group of other people, were discussing our very diverse childhoods growing up in different parts of the world. She had taught me this tongue twister a few years ago, and though I knew how to say it, I never had the cultural context necessary to truly understand it.



The tongue twister seems to be a means of connecting to a distant culture – both through the use of slang words and the implicit vernacular and pronunciation sophistication required to present the tongue twister correctly and understand its meaning. The humorous meaning is probably a means of making the content appealing to children so they get influenced to repeat the phrase and subconsciously learn the language and culture.

The Royal Toe

Context: My informant is a 22 year-old student of Italian descent. We were discussing a folk tale that she had heard while studying abroad in London in the prior year.


Background: My informant expressed that she was unaware of how the tale or myth began, but it was one that she heard on several occasions. There are many different myths regarding what the different length of fingers or toes mean, but this one in particular involves the royal family.


Main Piece: “The myth is, if your second toe is longer than your big toe, you come from a royal bloodline. There was a similar one that said you were related to Princess Diana specifically. I was sitting at dinner with a few friends one night, and one girl was wearing open toed shoes. She had this special toe apparently, and our waiter pointed it out and told her it meant that she comes from the bloodline of the royal family. I just thought it was kind of strange, so a few of the times that I was in a conversation with a local I asked them about it and all said the same thing. I couldn’t tell if anyone really truly believed it, but everyone definitely knew about it.”


Analysis: I had never heard of the myth of the Royal Toe, so after doing some research I learned that many famous statues exhibit the “royal toe” as well – one famous example being the Statue of Liberty. It’s interesting to see the different symbolic meaning identified to the length of a digit, and how it’s manifested in different cultures and countries.


Beautiful women have great allure – Mexican Proverb

Main Piece:

“jalan mas un par de bubis que una carreta.”


Pull more a pair of boobs than a two-wheeled cart


Beautiful women have great allure



Nationality: Mexican

Location: Guadalajara, Mexico

Language: Spanish


Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 71-year-old female from Guadalajara, Mexico. I asked my informant if she knew any proverbs and she responded the ones she remembered were due to their humorous nature. She then said to me the proverb, “jalan mas un par de bubis que una carreta.” I asked where she recalled this saying from and she claims to have heard it at a rural town where her family owned a countryside home, El Rancho Platanar. The town is called Plan de Barrancas in Jalisco Mexico. Her family was accustomed to driving up from the city they lived in, Guadalajara, to the house and spent weeklong holidays there when she was a young girl. When they were staying at the house, she would visit the local town with her siblings and that is where she first heard the saying. My informant remembers walking down the street with her sisters when she noticed a couple of workers that were doing construction on the road were staring at her and her sisters. She claims one of the men even whistled. Then another worker that had just joined the ‘viewing’ said the phase, loud enough so my informant and her sisters could hear. The informant says the phrase means a beautiful woman is more distracting, and draws attention in a greater quantity, than the amount of weight a wagon can carry.

The language employed in the phrase is slang. The verb ‘jalar’ is not commonly employed to mean a rhetorical pull and in more formal language it literally means ‘to pull’. The phrase is comparing the rhetorical quantity with a literal quantity.  This slang type of language is often heard around rural towns and used by working class people. The context the phrase was used in is very informal and even crude. The phrase can even be considered a form of street harassment, commenting in a sexual manner on the appearance of young women as they walk down the street. The informant shares she did feel a bit uncomfortable in the situation as she did not know how to respond, and her older sister told her to look down and keep walking. I don’t believe this phrase has a specific meaning and its purpose is likely to comment on the allure of beautiful women. In the proverb, women are compared to the weight a two-wheeled cart can carry because the phrase is employed by construction workers, and a cart is an object that is often utilized in their daily lives to transport materials from one place to the other.

Yiddish Proverb

Context: The 20-year-old informant from Montclair, New Jersey was telling me how his mother’s grandfather, the informant’s great-grandfather, was a Yiddish teacher for many years. He often spoke fluent Yiddish to his granddaughter, and she picked up many interesting and sometimes hilarious phrases, jokes, and proverbs. I asked him if he could give me a few examples of these Yiddish phrases, and he told me that there is one thing that his grandparents, and sometimes his mother, always say to him. While this proverb always contributes the same meaning, it can be delivered in a multitude of variations, each one more descriptive than the next.

Piece: “So my great-grandfather was a Yiddish teacher, and he taught my mother many Yiddish phrases, which she, in turn, passed down to me. Definitely, the most memorable thing that he used to say was how he would tell someone to leave a room in response to them doing something idiotic or clumsy. Or if a person just said something rude, or like flat out stupid.”

1. Yiddish: “Gay esen a bagel”

English: “Go eat a bagel”

2. Yiddish: “Gay kachen afen yahn”

English: “Go take a shit in the ocean”

Analysis: While these two examples of folk speech seem to be completely different in meaning when first heard, they are actually employed to convey the same message: I want you to leave my presence. The speaker may not actually want the recipient of these words to leave; it may just be a way to bring a certain humorous shame upon the subject. I have noticed an interesting trend in the folk speech of eastern Europeans, such as Germans, Pollocks, and those who speak Yiddish. There seems to be an abundance of humor involving vivid, oftentimes grotesque imagery of the human body engaged in vulgar acts, sometimes even involving bodily fluids. Such a level of vulgarity is only socially acceptable to use if you are speaking to a family member or anyone else that you are very close to. When a father tells his son to “Gay kachen afen yahn” or “go shit in the ocean,” he is using it partially as a term of endearment. This type of folk speech, specifically telling someone to leave a room, exists in many other places around the world, including the United States, where they say, “Go take a hike!”

“Full of the Dickens” – Southern Saying

“Full of the Dickens”
Full of the Dickens. My grandma used to say that – he is full of the dickens. It means you’re silly, naughty. It was from the south, I think. Honestly, I think you’re full of the dickens, really.

The informant who provided this information was born and raised in Southern California, yet her mother and that following side of the family was from the Southern part of the United States – referred to by her as, “the south”. Her mother and other relatives would use a lot of southern sayings and slang, and she likes to use it when she can, because it makes her think of her family. She also jeers at the collector with the saying, continuing the tradition.

The informant who provided this information is a 52-year-old Caucasian women, born and raised in Southern California. The information was collected while sitting outside her home in Palm Desert, California, on the 20th of April, 2019.

I really enjoyed collecting this piece from my mother – it is a saying passed down through the family to her, and now to me! This transmission of folklore is both exciting and characterizing of folklore itself. I think it is really interesting to see the specific things the informant remembers and repeats from childhood – it must mean it stuck out back then as interesting, and has lasted thus far. I do not believe I am “full of the dickens”, but if she characterizes me as such, I very well may be! I think the use of this saying helps her connect back and remember her mother and grandmother, and keeping the saying alive keeps her family alive and memorializes them, in a way.

German Proverb — Can’t see the Forest


The following piece was collected from a seventy-three year-old American man over a meal, celebrating an anniversary. The man will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant”, and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “I have a saying.”

Collector: “What is it?”

Informant: “I used to hear it in German from my grandmother, sometimes. It goes, ‘You can’t see the forest for all the trees.’”

Collector: “What does it mean?”

Informant: “It means you have to see the bigger picture. Hmm…I’ll have to find you the German version.”

Du siehst den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht.

            You don’t see the forest for all the trees.

            Can’t see the forest for the trees.


            The Informant heard this from his grandmother, said not directly to him but overheard when she would speak with the Informant’s mother. He remembers it because he says he was always confused by it as a child. The Informant understands it now to mean that sometimes one gets lost in the details when all he or she needed to do was step back and look at the bigger picture.


            I was in agreement with the Informant and his interpretation of the German proverb when he explained what he understood it to mean. However, I also believe that the proverb could be referring to a broader scale, when looking at how people themselves function. It makes sense to me to also consider the trees as representing humans and the forest as a larger goal, or greater good. People get so caught up in themselves that they might be unable to properly understand something that is larger than they are.


For another version of this proverb, please see p. 187 of Eliot Oring’s (1986) edition of Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction in F. A. de Caro’s chapter on “Riddles and Proverbs”.

Bronner, Simon J., et al. Folk Groups And Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Edited by Elliott Oring, University Press of Colorado, 1986.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — Prayer for Good Luck


The following piece was collected from a seventy-three year-old woman from Vail, Colorado. She is Irish Catholic. She will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “Oh, whenever my family needs a bit of luck, or we think someone else could use it, all you have to say is ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.’”

Collector: “Then what’s supposed to happen?”

Informant: “Nothing is supposed to happen. It’s just a way of trying to get some extra help from above.”

Collector: “When do you say it?”

Informant: “Well, we’ve always said it whenever we see an ambulance. If one drives by with the sirens, you say a quick JMJ and that helps. Or…haha… if you need some help on a test you think you did poorly on, I would always write JMJ very small in the corner of the paper right before I turned it in. Couldn’t hurt.”


The Informant learned this practice from her father, who would always stop the car and make the kids said JMJ if they saw an accident or an ambulance. It later leaked into other aspects of their lives, more lighthearted in nature. The Informant always felt more confident, or at least hopeful, about a test that she had written JMJ on. She believed that with God on her side, there was such a better chance of things turning out well in the end.


            I believe this piece to be interesting in the ways it can be applied and at the same time very familiar to me. Growing up, my family’s mantra for a quick bit of help or luck came as a result of very quickly saying “Come, Holy Spirit”. Hearing another family that has a similar practice, but different words is heartwarming to me, because I enjoy hearing that people have faith in small phrases, that saying them can bring good luck and fortune.

Back When Tigers Used to Smoke: The Origin of Korea


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: You know how most fairy tales start with, like, “once upon a time”?

Interviewer: Mhm.

Subject: The, uh, Korean version is, “back when tigers used to smoke.” Like cigarettes. Back when tigers would smoke tobacco basically. I don’t know the exact origin, but there are old Korean paintings depicting a tiger with like a little ancient Asian-Korean pipe. Koreans love inserting that sh*t, like so, I guess no one knows where it actually came from, but a lot of stories begin, “Back when tigers used to smoke tobacco.” Assuming they don’t anymore.

Interviewer: That’s so interesting, that’s the literal translation?

Subject: Yup.

Interviewer: Is it something to do with like, the legend of how Korea started with a tiger and a, uh lion?

Subject: A bear.

Interviewer: A bear, yeah, is it something to do with that?

Subject: Tiger is like, America has an eagle, Korea has a tiger.

Interviewer: Makes sense.

Subject: Like Korean wild tigers have gone extinct after Japanese occupation, cuz they would hunt tigers as like sport. So I don’t think there’s any tigers left in wildlife Korea. But Koreans pride themselves, um North Korea claims they have tigers, I don’t know they totally could. But like, yeah tigers, the quintessential Korean animal. Do you know the fable of how Korea started?

Interviewer: Not really.

Subject: It’s super simple, God basically came down and found a tiger and a bear who both wanted to be humans. So God told them to like, “okay if you go live in a cave, only live off garlic and warm wood for 60 days or 100 days or something, then you will be a human.” The tiger left because it was impatient, but the bear survived, the bear became a woman and had the child of the God. So the human woman, who used to be a bear, got pregnant from God, and gave birth to an egg. Out of that egg was Korea’s first king, supposedly, like King Arthur type thing. That was like 50,000 years ago I guess.



As you can see, our conversation led to much of what this analysis section would talk about. The tiger is a very prevalent and defining symbol for Korea, and as they were once given human characteristics in old fables to explain the origins of their country, it makes sense why fairy tales would begin with a description of a time when tigers would be human-like. Maybe setting the story before the God came down, or during the first settling of humans in the country.

Specifically, the tigers in Korea are Siberian tigers. It brings luck, and embodies courage and absolute power.


A ghost who died while eating, still looks good


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. They use this proverb very frequently while in Korea.



Subject: “Ghost who died while eating, looks good. That’s a rough translation.

Interviewer: A ghost?

Subject: “A ghost who died eating, looks good, like has good skin color, looks healthy” actually say looks healthy. So when someone’s debating, ‘should I eat this or not? Like I’ve had so much food today, but I really want this last donut.” Other person, like trying to persuade them into eating, “dude, like even a ghost who died eating looks healthy, you know? Like even a ghost, who’s a dead entity, but even that ghost, looks better, arguably, than other ghosts, and he died while eating, so you should eat!”

Interviewer: Okay, are they — what is the point, why do they look better when they’re eating?

Subject: Because food, food is good for you.

Interviewer: Okay that makes sense. Do you use that often?

Subject: Mostly just old people do.

Interviewer: Old people love proverbs.

Subject: It’s their meme.



Another Korean proverb here, this one again having to do with food. As I said earlier, Asian countries pride themselves on creating a communal dining experience. Korean barbeque restaurants for example make it a point to have the eaters cook their meats together, solidifying it as a group-effort.


Turkish Barking Dog Proverb


D, a 23-year-old, Turkish male who grew up in Turkey until he turned 8 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Boise, Idaho, but spent a lot of time with his mother, who only spoke Turkish until D was 16.

Background info:

D’s first language was Turkish. He and his mother would converse this way, despite him being fluent in English. His mother would tell him stories and folklore from Turkey, as she was very proud of her heritage. This is one of the Turkish proverbs in their household. D’s mother would use this phrase with her children to console them if they were fighting online or getting cyber-bullied.


This is a Turkish phrase that D’s parents would say to their children when they would get into arguments or fights with their peers. D quoted this phrase to me when I came to him for advice. The following is the context for which it was said.

Me: “I want to be the bigger man and just brush it off, but there has just been so much piling on top of me lately. They just keep going on and on, even after I took a break from social media. I hate that I am even angry about this, it’s so petty.”

D: “My mother used to tell me ‘havlayan köpek ısırmaz’, which means that people will talk and talk but nothing ever comes from it. People just like to think they are on top, even if that means making a fool of themselves by talking a big game and not acting on it.”

Main piece:

Turkish: “havlayan köpek ısırmaz”

English Translation: “A barking dog does not bite”


When I initially asked D what this meant, he related it to the common phrase, “You’re all bark and no bite!” When asked how it relates, his reply was that when people use this phrase, it generally implies that the other person will only talk about action, not pursue it. He says the Turkish phrase also represents that. Practically, the saying does not make the most sense. Barking in dogs is effectively a warning, like growling, before they bite. However, in humans, I think it makes more sense. People who do a lot of talking typically only do that – talk. It also ties into the popular saying of “You can talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?” People question the seriousness of people who talk a lot instead of acting on their words.