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

“The Value of Hard Work”

Context & Analysis

The subject and I were eating lunch together and I asked him to tell me about any traditions or sayings he remembers from his family. The subject told me he doesn’t have a strong connection with his parents, but that in particular, his parents have always emphasized the value of hard work. The subject stated that the proverb is a traditional Chinese proverb, but provided me with a rough summary as he remembered his parents telling him. After doing some research, the story comes from a Chinese idiom, “Shòu zhū dài tù”, or “Watching a tree stump, waiting for rabbits” (visiontimes.com). Additionally, the original idiom does not mention the farmer himself dying, so this could possibly be an alternative ending that the subject’s parents told him for extra emphasis. This seems like a rather graphic story to tell to a young child, but the proverb and the idiom it originates from highlights the reliability of hard work instead of luck. (Source url: http://www.visiontimes.com/2013/11/18/the-chinese-idiom-watching-a-tree-stump-waiting-for-rabbits.html)

Main Piece

“The jist of the proverb is about a farmer who one day luckily manages to catch a rabbit that runs head first into a tree. So instead of farming or working hard, he decides to sit by the tree every day and wait for more rabbits to run into the tree. Of course that never happens because that’s only a really lucky occurrence, so he starves and dies.”   

folk metaphor
general

Arroz con Mango

Cuban culture in general is incredibly vibrant and colorful. With recent tourism to Cuba rising, foreigners often underestimate how vibrant the buildings, cars, and clothes are in Cuba. And this powerful expression also transfers over into language and proverbs. When visiting home recently, my aunt and grandmother came over to share common Cuban vernacular with me.

One idiom is: “Arroz con Mango”. Phonetically, it’s easy to pronounce since it utilizes the same Latin alphabet. It’s literal translation is “Rice with Mango”. Although it may sound like a delicious Cuban delicacy, it’s actually shorthand for describing “a terrible mess.” It’s such a specific description that if said in the right way many Cubans could be laughing up a storm. My aunt was cracking up as she remembered the phrase, suddenly taken back to many memories of growing up in the Cuban section of San Juan, Puerto Rico. So if something is chaotic or messy, and it can be tied to metaphorical things too like relationships, then it could be “Arroz con Mango”.

Folk speech

Mexican Elderly Idiom

“The second one is, umm… More knows the devil, because he’s old, than to be a devil. Do you want me to tell you in Spanish? ‘Mas el diablo por viejo que por diablo.’ ”

 

And in what context would you say that? Like, what would you say that in reference to?

 

“Umm, that, uhh, we need to pay attention to the old people. That the old people is, is they know the way and we need to listen to them.”

 

Analysis: Another short and sweet proverb, this one celebrates old age in a very tongue-in-cheek sort of way. The proverb proclaims that the Devil knows more about being the Devil from simply living into old age than by being the Devil in the first place. In other words, this proverb would seem to reveal that, in rural Mexican culture, learned wisdom gleaned through experience is superior to natural-born intellect. This would suggest a deference to rural elders and a suspicion of up-and-comer types in the informant’s culture.

Folk speech

Taiwanese Idiom– Eating Tofu

“I’ve never heard a mainlander say it. And the phrase is, ‘Sou doufu.’ Literally translated that is, ‘eat tofu.’ And then, umm, this is something said when… if you say ‘I’m gonna go eat tofu,’ that means ‘I’m gonna go out and try to find some girls.’ ”

 

So that’s like, uhh, hunting, uhh not hunting tail, uhh, ‘chasing tail’ in the United States.

 

“Yeah, it’s like chasing tail. But it also, but if you say someone ‘eats tofu,’ that could also mean he’s very promiscuous, so, but it, it’s not, its definitely not like positively connotated. It’s more negative, cuz’ promiscuity is negatively connotated. Yeah.

 

And the reason is it’s ‘eat tofu,’ is because tofu’s like, white, silky smooth, very nice, fragile, gentle, and in Chinese culture, girls are often viewed in this way, traditionally, like pale skin is a very idealized thing and girls are very fragile. Like they weren’t allowed to have their own opinions and all that stuff back in the day. So I think that’s why it is ‘eat tofu.’ Because girls are basically tofu. [laughs]”

 

Where’d you learn that from?

 

“Umm… This was like… you just hang out with your friends and they say these things. Yeah, I have Taiwanese friends, and then like, cuz all, in Chinese school, all my friends had Taiwanese parents too, so, like, they had Taiwanese friends and it just like, propagates. I dunno when I picked it up, but I did. Culture. [laughs]”

Analysis: This idiom is quite interesting, despite its brevity, because of the cultural values that it exposes. The informant implied that this was a phrase used only to refer to the activities of men. Therefore, at once, Taiwanese culture is revealed to somewhat objectify women, but also to commodify them. As the informant notes, the idiom harkens back to a time when women were expected to be docile and pretty to look at rather than the equality present in modern society. It is interesting to note that this phrase is being spread amongst Taiwanese youth in the United States, despite its applicability to Taiwan and Taiwanese values.

Adulthood
Customs
Folk speech
Humor

“Ah, another day in paradise!”

This idiom reveals an element of the informant’s workplace culture. The informant divulged that this phrase is commonly said by exasperated co-workers and often accompanied by a sigh. This particular idiom is a sarcastic remark that serves as a reaction to the workplace pressure and the daily grind of listening to bosses’ demands, going to meetings, making presentations, ensuring that assignments are completed before they are due, and placating customers. This idiom is usually expressed by the employees as they walk past each other in the hallways or when one passes by another sitting at his or her cubicle. By sharing this sentiment in an open forum, those who say the idiom create a collective consciousness of the common pressures facing all who work in that environment in a showing of solidarity.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
general
Proverbs

「三日坊主」– Japanese Idiomatic Phrase

「三日坊主」is a phrase in Japan that, translated literally, means “three days monk,” or “a monk for three days.” It is used in everyday speech to indicate someone that gives up at the first sight of difficulty, or gets so easily bored with something that they are always hopping around one thing or another. For instance, someone that can never keep a journal for longer than a few days is said to be a 三日坊主, as well as people who pick up a new hobby every month.

My informant spent most of her life in Tokyo, Japan, being exposed to all kinds of regional Japanese dialects. She cannot remember the first time she heard this, but thinks, because of its widespread use in Japanese society, that it must have been when she was a child living in Okinawa. 「何かいつも知ってたような気がする」She said, which, roughly translated means, “I feel like I’ve kind of always known to say that to describe someone.” This concept of “I think I’ve always known,” I feel, is always the most significant indicator that a phrase is very engrained in that particular society. My informant’s mother would often tell her that she was a 三日坊主 because she could not keep up the same sport for a very long time. She did not like to lose, and always wanted to move on to another sport as soon as she felt that she would have to work very hard to get better than the people on her team. She wanted, she said, to find a sport that would fit her in some way naturally (which she now knows is impossible) so that she would not have to try so hard to maintain her position within it. And so she hopped around, quitting soccer when when the team started incorporating two-mile runs in their warm-ups, quitting tennis after a newcomer toppled her from her position as the best player on the team. This was not, however, the only time the phrase was used–my informant said that she often fired back at her mother for being a 三日坊主 as well, for never being able to sustain attendance at her cooking classes. “One day she’d be obsessed with Indian food and there’d be curry and naan everywhere, and then two days later she’d say she was done with it and start trying to make pizza dough from scratch, and then there was this one time when she went through a Chinese food phase and said that she was going to be a Chinese food chef, which obviously never worked out, because she kept messing up and getting frustrated and quitting.”

When my informant asked me whether there was an American phrase that corresponded with 三日坊主, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t give her a set answer. The closest phrase I could come up with, “easily bored” doesn’t have that same sense of giving up at the first sign of difficulty, the sense of wanting everything to be easy, that 三日坊主 implies. 三日坊主 is a phrase with mostly negative connotations, yet many people use it to describe themselves, oftentimes saying jokingly something like, “Oh, I quit needlework classes a long time ago. I’m such a 三日坊主!” Using a phrase like “three days monk,” perhaps, has a humorous aspect to it that makes it okay to joke about what could otherwise be seen as a character flaw. This way, in fact, they don’t need to discuss and talk about the reasons behind why they are so keen on giving up–labeling oneself as a 三日坊主 seems to be enough explanation by itself, and probably the reason why people find so much comfort in the phrase. The fact that the phrase exists gives a sense of camaraderie to all those who are described such, making them feel part of a pre-packaged group.

The phrase 三日坊主 originates from the concept of “being a monk for just three days.” Becoming a monk is something that can be very character-building and spiritually rewarding, if only one possesses strong character and true intentions. It is something that takes a life-time of work, and a life-time of dedication to its society’s rules. Being a monk for just three days is someone who is keen on receiving the rewards immediately, who cannot see that hard work leads to improvement and betterment of the self, or of a certain skill. I thought my informant described it best when she said: “三日坊主 is someone that wants that money tree, but gives up once he hears that he needs to cultivate it himself, from the seed on, and that it takes years and years to grow. A 三日坊主 is someone that for the most part lives in the present, and will go searching and searching for a money tree, but will perhaps never find it, because he doesn’t realize that the money tree will only give him money if he gives himself over, and nurtures it himself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Folk speech

Folk Speech/Idiom – Persian

Folk Speech/Idiom – Persian

“’The wall has mice in it, and mice have ears.’ If you’re sitting somewhere and you realize you’re sitting by nosey people, you whisper this to your friend so they know not to say anything important.”

The informant made it very clear that Persian people use idioms in everyday speech almost always, stating that it is not unusual to use five idioms in one conversation. She attributes this to the oppression that existed in Iran, which forced Persians to be extremely careful about what they spoke about in public. Furthermore, this oppression created figures of speech and metaphors that allowed them to communicate without fear of persecution. Idioms such as this one, according to the informant, have been passed down for generations, and are still used today. Even though there is no risk of persecution, they still use these idioms to converse concisely and, as the informant described it, non-confrontationally. They are able to convey an idea very quickly to somebody from within their own culture using these idioms.
I agree with the informant’s interpretation of this idiom. These idioms contribute to a part of their cultural identity as Persian immigrants, while giving them a strong sense of community with other Persians in the community. Furthermore, it serves as a connection and reminder to their past.

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