USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘military’
Customs
general
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Charge Books – A Navy Chief Initiation Tradition

Item:

T: The older chiefs will pass on the knowledge and the expertise to the new chiefs with the charge book, right? So then when you- before people in the old days, when you want to be chief you have to carry around a charge book to see all other chiefs to get the- collect the knowledge and experience from them.  But through the years, they use the charge books, they do all kinds of stuff with that charge book, yenno, they- they destroy the charge book, yenno, you’re supposed to protect that charge book, you cannot let the charge book go and some of the chiefs they’re destroying it and burning it so, it just doesn’t mean much anymore so they changed it new way, they changed it a lot, they put a lot of that restriction to them.  Some of the guys ruin it for other guys. So yeah.

T: So the new way is, inside your chief’s mess, depending on how big it is – some mess got really small number of people, some people got a big – but you list all the chiefs in your mess and you go to see each one of them.. to get the knowledge to pass down.  That’s what you’re supposed to do during the transition period.

Q: So you’re not considered an actual chief until you finish that process?

T: Well, that’s the tradition, but the new- I mean, the way, once you got selected for chief, you gonna become a chief either yes or no but, yenno, if you go through the transition, you go through the training, you become a chief.  If you don’t you decide not to do that, other chiefs they’re gonna call you an E7 not a chief.  So in the Navy, you call someone an E7, that’s in-insulting.

Q: So does that mean you still have yours then?

T: Have what?

Q: Your charge book?

T: You’re always supposed to have it with you. You carry that through your life, that’s your memory.

 

Context:

I collected this piece in a conversation about the informant’s experiences in the U.S. Navy.  He joined in 1990 and served 26 years before retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in 2017.  He recalled the charge book tradition while discussing some of the Navy Chief culture.  He also mentioned how the Navy Chief’s Mess is the largest association in the world.  He has a lot of pride in being a retired Navy chief, saying how “The Chiefs are the backbone of the Navy, the Chiefs make the Navy run.”  The informant remembers his own initiation in which he also completed a charge book as a significant moment in his life, especially considering how he asserts that you carry your charge book through your life.  He briefly joked about how when you ask a Navy Chief their birthday, they’ll ask back which one in regards to their actual birthday or the day they became pinned as a Chief.  In addition, the informant talked about why there may be such significant traditions around becoming a Navy Chief.  He says that in other branches, moving from to an E7 ranking is nothing particularly special.  For the US Navy, though, becoming a Chief (the equivalent title for an E7) holds a higher significance and as such has an initiation “just like joining a fraternity”.

 

Analysis:

Initiation rites and traditions are a means of legitimizing or introducing an individual’s membership in a group to those who are already members, especially beyond any official announcement.  Particularly in the charge book tradition described above, even though becoming a Chief is an official designation in the Navy, the informant mentions how the other Chiefs will not acknowledge an individual as such unless they have completed the initiation tradition.  The alienation of those who choose not to participate is further emphasized by their insulting address as an E7, as also mentioned by the informant.  The process of the initiation is quite literally gaining a body of knowledge and experience from the existing members of the Chief’s Mess that otherwise would have taken years of experience to learn.  Especially considering how disparities in knowledge or experience are the basis of distinguishing a certain identity, as the Chief candidates complete their charge books, they slowly close the gap between themselves and the Chiefs already in the.  Thus, they slowly become part of the association.  The pieces of advice given are like stepping stones as the candidates complete their transition; once they have completed all of them, they have earned the right to be called Chief and a part of the Navy Chief’s Mess.  Initiation traditions, like completing a charge book to become a Navy Chief, not only legitimize an individual’s membership in a group, they also provide the means to earn an identity that cannot merely be given.

Customs
Game
general

Challenge Coins – A Navy Chief Tradition

Item:

T: Well, the challenge coin, it started during the war.  So.. the guys would go to the war, they come back, they bring stuff back like their.. their.. kind of their achievements, their, yenno, their bragging rights, right?

Q: Mhmm.

T: People bring in guns, ammo, explosive stuff so it’s kind of get danger, right? So that’s why they start doin’ the – that’s the kind of challenging each other, so that’s.. they start the, using coins instead, so they’re challenge coins.

Q: Mhmm.

T: Right. So for the Chiefs, the Navy Chiefs, the challenge coin, you’re supposed to have it with you all the time, so every time you go in the bar, you go and sit and talk, somebody can pull out the coin and start tapping, right?  If they’re tapping on the bar and.. whoever doesn’t have a coin in them, they have to buy drinks for everybody else.  But, if they’re tapping and everybody got a coin, the guy that’s tapping the guy gonna buy the drinks for everybody else.

T: So with the Chiefs, the coin is more.. every chief gonna walk around with a coin.  Sometime they personalize their own coin or sometime they have, like, their command coin. So.. but the Chief coin a lot different than just a command coin.  It’s just the Chief coin got an anchor on it; every Chief coin got an anchor on it.  It’s for the Chief’s Mess, Chief Association.

Q: Did you ever get stuck on the end of the stick where you had to buy drinks?

T: Never.  Friends that cover me too. Some carry multiple coins with them, they just slip it through under the table.

 

Context:

I collected this piece in a conversation with a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer about his experiences during active duty.  I had actually heard about this piece before and inquired about it directly.  The informant told me about challenge coins and other traditions in the conversation following the exchange above.  He talked about how he learned this piece while completing a charge book as part of his Chief’s initiation, and took pride in never having had to pay for drinks for the Mess in his 13 years as a Chief.  For my understanding, the informant explained that the Chief’s Mess is essentially the Chief’s association.  Inside the Mess, they can address any and all problems conflicts, including personal ones, but outside of the Mess, the Navy Chiefs are one operational unit that “makes the Navy run.”

 

Analysis:

The informant mentioned how Navy Chiefs are expected to have challenge coins on them at all times, but this expectation is never specified. Rather, it is something that is passed from person to person in between Chiefs.  Like how the informant learned about challenge coins through his charge book, a Chief would hope someone else tells him or helps him out before he has to buy drinks.  Carrying a challenge coin, then, becomes a way of proving one’s identity as a Chief.  It may also be a material reminder to uphold the expectations of a Navy Chief and fulfill those duties because it needs to be on you constantly.  It is less of an initiation though, I would say, rather than a game or a test of sorts.  The Navy Chief’s initiation is completing a charge book, and those who do not go through with this are called E7 instead of Chief.  In the case of the challenge coin, the repercussions are significantly less insulting, albeit still undesirable.  Also, as opposed to an initiation process, this tradition continues throughout the entirety of one’s service as a Chief rather than just at the start.  The possibility of being tested for a challenge coin can happen at any time, so individuals must be constantly prepared for it.  In addition, the informant mentions how he has had friends help him out when he did not have a challenge coin.  This is an interesting point because the challenge coin tradition, as a whole, asserts the group identity as the Navy Chief’s Mess and their relationship as an operational unit.  Since this tradition happens in the Mess, where they are able to set aside their responsibility of acting as a cohesive unit, individual interpersonal relationships can be revealed.  The possibility of helping each other out is an example.  Just as how only certain people may be friends within a larger group of people, potentially only certain Chiefs will be friends within a certain Mess, whether it be because of shared backgrounds or experiences, etc.  These friendships work to prevent each other from punishments and potential embarrassment from being caught without a challenge coin.  All in all, the challenge coin tradition of U.S. Navy Chiefs is a symbol of Chiefhood, through constantly having one on you as a material reminder of your duties and being prepared to present it as proof of your identity.

Customs
general
Material

The Grog Bowl – An Air Force Tradition

Item:

G: It’s pretty standard across the Air Force, I’m not sure about the other branches but- So we have “dining-ins” or “dining-outs” so..  “Dining-in” is like a dinner event amongst everyone in the unit, so it’s just pure, like, military.  And then “dining-out” is when you can invite your family, you can have dates and stuff.  And depending on the circumstance, there’s something called a grog bowl.  It’s the worst thing in the world!  So like, if you ever look at what a “dining-in” or “dining-out” is, there’s a president and a vice president.  It’s like role-playing, it’s really funny, it’s so dumb.  So it’s like, let’s say the president hasn’t been seated yet, to eat dinner, like.. and everybody else sits down to eat, everyone has to go to the grog bowl.  The grog bowl is like a punch bowl with like, the nastiest stuff inside like, they throw like, cranberry juice and like, chocolate and like- They just mix everything like hot sauce.  And last time, they threw a slice of pizza, so they started involving solids.  And it was the worst experience ever because it’s like, nobody wants to go to the grog bowl, but that’s like, it’s- it’s tradition that you have to have a grog bowl at one of these events, at least if you’re making it a formal one, like by the books.  Like the grog bowl, if somebody makes a mistake, they have- they have to be sent to the grog bowl.  They have to get a little shot- like plastic shot glass or whatever, serve themselves, drink the whole thing, and then lift the cup and like, flip it upside down on their heads.  So if they don’t drink it, they just spill the freakin’ all th- all the liquids on top of their heads.  Or they drink it all and they don’t have anything, right?  And it’s just like, it’s so funny.  So it’s like, there’s so many little tedious things so if like, somebody makes a mistake: Oh! You’re goin’ to the grog! You spoke before being told to speak? You’re goin’ to the grog!  It’s such a funny experience.

 

Context:

I collected this piece in a conversation with one of my friends over lunch about military traditions and customs since he is an Air Force ROTC Cadet at the University of Southern California and my dad served 26 years in the U.S. Navy.  The informant is a sophomore studying astronautical engineering and a cadet in the USC Air Force ROTC.  He described having a grog bowl at dining-ins and dining-outs as “by far a terrible, but super fun experience,” also telling me about how one of the worse ones he had experienced was when they included solids into the mixture.  He could not recall what he did wrong immediately, but he then remembered that he had started eating before the president did.  The informant also explained additional information, like how the roles are typically determined by the highest-ranking officers, and that they have the authority to “do whatever the hell they want” with the grog bowl, as long as there was not any alcohol.  When asked about the origin though, the informant said that he only knew of it as an Air Force tradition for dining-ins and dining-outs.

 

Analysis:

The Air Force grog bowl is an interesting piece of military folklore because it is essentially a type of hazing that is not really associated with assuming a new identity or an initiation tradition, and it also juxtaposes a single element of chaos that has been allowed to remain with an otherwise highly regulated and disciplined environment.  With other humorous or more casual traditions, there is a time and place where it is acceptable for a large group to engage with it as once, thus creating an overall environment of humor or chaos.  Yet, the grog bowl sits in the middle of a formal event.  It seems as if it is meant for enforcing discipline and proper behavior at dining-ins or dining-outs since those who make any type of mistake are sent to the grog bowl.  In the case of the informant I spoke to, though, he could not readily recall what he was sent to the grog for, which somewhat decreases the effectiveness of the grog bowl as a means of discipline.  His strongest memories on the grog bowl are how funny the whole concept is and how nasty the mixture was when he got punished at one of his first dining-ins.  Everyone is equally susceptible to being sent to the grog bowl and as such, is held to the same expectation of conduct and discipline – two very important ideas in any branch of the military – regardless of ranking or status.  Regardless of its purpose, whether for entertainment or punishment for those who make mistakes in conduct or both, it is clear that the tradition is expected as a part of formal events.  With each new concoction that is created and each member that is sent to suffer with it, the U.S. Air Force tradition lives on.

Customs
general
Initiations
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Naval Academy Wedding Tradition

Main Piece:

Informant: When a newly-married couple is walking out of the chapel for the first time they walk through two columns of Midshipmen holding their sabre’s up high. The lines are made up of members of the wedding party and officers in attendance. It’s four on each side of the two rows. The first two will lower their swords making like a gate. The married has to kiss in order for the each row to raise their swords and let them pass. When the couple gets to the last two Midshipmen with their swords lowered they kiss one more time. When they pass the last two one of the last two will slap the sword against the butt of the civilian spouse and say “Welcome to the Navy!”

 

Background: The informant is my brother. He is a senior at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He first learned of this tradition through first-hand experience at the wedding of one of his closest friends at the academy. This interview was recorded over the phone. I asked the informant if he could recall any specific military traditions he has witnessed through informal mediums.

Context: The sabre is given to Midshipmen when they reach first class rank (the college equivalent of a senior). It is a point of pride amongst first class officers and is treated with the utmost care. The sabre arch is done right after the wedding ceremony finishes as the bride and groom leave the chapel. It is a highly-respected tradition and is always performed with punctuality.

Analysis: For most military members, the job can quickly become your life. Although the informant is a student, I have witnessed his transition into a full-fledged officer within the short span of four years. He holds the values and culture in the highest regard, much like his peers. In his words, “When you join the Navy you are making a lifelong commitment”. Well, some would also consider marriage to be a lifelong commitment. As I have experienced first-hand, the spouses of servicemen and women become an equal part of the military community they married into. As such, the tradition of the sabre arch is symbolic of that relationship. The spouse of the officer is committing to joining the military community around them. In return, through the sabre arch, the military community is grants the spouse acceptance. The cry, “Welcome to the Navy”, is confirmation of that acceptance.

Folk speech

Playing the Dozens and Bagging in the Navy

Main Text

Subject: Okay so my, my dad had a bunch of sayings that…felt…both very particular to him, but also of a culture that I don’t quite understand? So…for instance, as, as a child, he would regularly tell me, if ugly were a stop sign, my face would be all over town.

If, uh…again, because they felt quick, and they felt like shit that people said, uh, but they also didn’t…he also had one that, you know, when referring to a con man, or a huckster, you know, that guy’s full of more shit than a Christmas turkey, uh…you know, ‘cuz you stuff turkeys.

Uh…other ones. Uh…similar about my uh…I guess he did fuck with me for being ugly a lot. Uh, looks like you got into a hatchet fight and forgot your hatchet. Uh…was there. And uh…what was some…oh, uh, you know, uh, sort of referring, you know, she looks like she’s been dead for two weeks and nobody told her. So I guess a lot of them, again, were…um. Yeah, visual in their base, and sort of thing.

Background

The subject believes that, despite being white and Italian-American, much of his father’s sayings were rooted in the “playing the dozens” and “bagging” traditions of African American Vernacular (AAVE). “Playing the dozens” and “bagging” are forms of tit for tat expressions of mild hostility among peers, similar to “yo mama” jokes. Though on the surface, “playing the dozens” and “bagging” can look like bullying, it is different from bullying because it is performed among social equals. Rather than the “big kid messing with a little kid,” it is more like “two smart kids going back and forth with each other” while a group eggs them on.

Context

The subject’s father first encountered AAVE when he was serving alongside African Americans in the Navy during 1965. As the sailors formed a community through the commonality of sharing the same military routine and struggles, the subject’s father participated in playing the dozens/bagging to strengthen that social connection. The subject’s father retained the social practice upon returning home.

Interviewer’s Analysis

Though the subject mentions that playing the dozens/bagging were meant to be performed among equals, the majority of the subject’s examples come from his father bagging him as a child. Would that violate the “performed among equals” requirement?

Perhaps post-military, away from the regular company of his fellow sailors, the father’s bagging became less of a form of normalized social bonding, and more of a generalized speech habit. The purpose may have shifted to reaffirming the shared social identity and social bonds built during service, by continuing to perform bagging in the absence of community members.

Folk speech

What’s the BLUF?

Abstract:

This piece is about the BLUF acronym that is used in the military law career when giving information to commanders.

Main Piece:

I had a career in the military, in the Army as a lawyer, and one of the things in the Army is that there is not always a lot of time for like long explanations or details when you’re working with a commander and what they always say is “what’s the BLUF?” And BLUF is bottom line up front. So basically, you might want like as a lawyer three pages of analysis, but they’re like “give me the BLUF.” And that’s just like “okay. Yes you can do it and here’s why.” And you always have to put the BLUF at the beginning of any papers you write or any information you give.”

Context:

The informant has had a 25 year long career in the JAG branch of the Army and picked up this lingo as part of her job. She has worked under many commanders and used quick lingo such as BLUF in daily language at the offices. The subject has lived all over due to her military career, from Hawaii, Kansas, Virginia, and Germany. She is originally from Buffalo New York. She says she remembers this particular acronym and saying because it was used so often.

My Interpretation:

Growing up in a military family as well, I definitely see how this phrase/acronym could be used in daily language. My parents would speak in codes that seemed like a different language. Hearing one of the phrases explained is interesting for me, almost like learning a definition for a word you should know, but were always too afraid to ask because it seems like common knowledge. I think if you are around this kind of phrase everyday, then it is just common knowledge. For civilians, I never hear this phrase being used in the work environment.

Customs
general
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Shellback Initiation – A Navy Tradition

Item:

T: So that’s a- that’s where you crossing- you ride the ship til you’re crossing the equator.

Q: Uh-huh.

T:  So once you cross the equator you see King Neptune, you have to do the ceremony to become a shellback.  Once you become a shellback, next time, when you cross the equator with the new sailors, you’re gonna make them do things, so they have to go through the initiation, like, similar to that to become a shellback.  Like you have to wash the deck.  What we did is we.. what I did was we.. crawl through the ship, crawl through got sprayed water on, got jumped dunked in the water, all the stuff to become a shellback.  When you become a shellback, you better not lose your certificate or else you cannot prove it.

Q: There’s a certificate for it?

T: Yup.

T: If you cross the equator at the International Dateline, then you become a golden shell back.

Q: Is there like a worse initiation for that?

T: No, it’s the same, it’s just that you’re crossing the International Dateline instead of other place.

Q: What does the certificate look like?

T: Big.  You carry the ID card too.  I don’t know where I put my ID card.  If I go back to the ship, I have to do it again. [Laughs]

T: Back when- when it was 2013 on my deployment, I was a shellback so I was getting other people to go through it to become a shellback.  Make them dress funny, make them do things, spray water on them.  Dump into a blue- green water.  Yenno the neon sticks, the glow stick?  You break that stick into a water tank and make that water turn green.

 

Context:

I collected this piece in a conversation with a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy about his experiences during active duty.  He recalled the shellback initiation above as a humorous tradition amongst those who are stationed on a ship that crosses the equator.  The informant mentioned how those who were too humiliated to participate would not watch the initiation; they would sit in their rooms and watch TV instead.  The informant has clearly participated in the initiation before, as both an initiate and as a shellback initiating others, and clearly holds respect for this Navy tradition since he joked about how he would have to do it again since he misplaced his ID card.

 

Analysis:

Initiation rites and traditions in groups, including but definitely not limited to the military, serve to introduce individuals to a group or legitimize their membership in it.  While conducted, they can establish comradery.  For the shellback initiation, those crossing the equator for the first time may not always be new sailors.  Vice versa, the shellbacks may not always be the higher-ranking officers.  As such, it puts initiates and shellbacks on more equal standing, either in rank or authority, in the space of this tradition regardless of official rank designations.  For the prior shellbacks, they would all have a right to participate in the initiation process by spraying water or making funny requests of the initiates.  For the initiates, once they have completed the process, they would have another facet of their ship experience that they share with each other and with those who came before them.  On the other hand, initiation traditions can also alienate individuals, but in the case of those who chose not to participate as told by the informant, it can be a personal choice.  An interesting part of the shellback initiation tradition, though, is the presence of ID cards and certificates to commemorate the event.  In most initiation rites, the process itself is the sp;e legitimizing factor in becoming a particular new identity.  In this case, there is also physical documentation.  I believe this may be because of the nature of military service.  The group an individual crossed the equator for the first time with may not necessarily be the group that they cross with the next time.  As such, there needed to be another form of documentation to be able to prove one’s shellback title.  Overall, the shellback initiation tradition in the U.S. Navy is a humorous and entertaining example of how initiation rites and traditions provide the means of earning a new identity.

 

Annotation:

For examples of the shellback initiation tradition, please see pages 74-76 of Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions written by retired U.S. Navy Commander Royal W. Connell and retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William P. Mack.

Connell, Royal W., and William P. Mack. Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions. 6th ed., Naval Institute Press, 2004.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Halloween on Military Bases: Trunk or Treat

Genre: Folk tradition/ritual, holiday

 

Nationality: American but takes place in other countries

Location: Germany

Language: English

 

Abstract: CB describes how Halloween is celebrated in American military families overseas by going trunk to trunk of cars instead of door to door in houses.

 

Background: CB is from a military family, and she spent a portion of her life in Germany while her dad was stationed there. She experienced this tradition every Halloween while she was overseas. The topic of conversation was brought up, at first, during a class section, then further discussed after.

 

The tradition:

 

Every Halloween (October 31st), CB would go to her father’s military base and join all of the other families in a Halloween celebration. Instead of walking around neighborhoods and ringing doorbells like Halloween in America, families on the base would bring their cars, decorate them, and walk around getting candy from the trunks of vehicles. Everything, including costumes, was the same. The only real difference was the smaller scale of who was celebrating and the place where the candy was located (in cars).

 

S: So, have you ever done this in the United States or in bases back in America?

CB: Not really, actually, I would say that it is more popular like outside of the US. Probably because, ya know, no one else really celebrates Halloween even though they might have similar versions.

 

Interpretation: While CB attributes the Halloween tradition of Trunk or Treat to the fact that surrounding areas do not celebrate the holiday, there is also another reason for the international twist. For soldiers overseas serving their contracts, Trunk or Treat provides them with a little taste of home. Living another life in a different country cause for America’s warriors to become nostalgic and miss the small things from back home. Celebrating halloween in their own way brings them back to recognize what they are fighting for and give them motivation to finish their service to get back home. The reason for the cars having to be used is because there is not the neighborhood/house atmosphere on a military base. The cars provide opportunities for decorations where one might see the typical orange and black colors with spiders, witches, blood, and pumpkins. Transporting this holiday across seas also means that young children of soldiers are able to still experience the childhood of typical Americans which will make the eventual transition back to America easier. On American bases, Trunk or Treat is not as popular because the soldiers stationed usually have houses outside the bounds of the military fences which allows for the typical house to house Halloween.

 

 

general
Humor
Initiations

The Mail Buoy – A Practical Joke on New Sailors in the Navy

Item:

T: With new sailors, we go out and say “Hey! Watch out for the mail buoy so we can pick up our mail!  Keep an eye out for that mail buoy, if you’re not gonna get that mail buoy, we’re not gonna get our mail!”

Q: So the new sailors would go out and they would look for it?

T: Yep.

Q: So how long is it gonna take them before they find out it’s a joke?

T: [Laughs] They will never know unless somebody tells them.

 

Context:

I collected this practical joke in a conversation about the informant’s time in the U.S.  Navy; I asked him about a few of the traditions I had heard about before and he also told me about a few others including the mail buoy joke.  The informant is denoted by the pseudonym ‘T’ and I am ‘Q’ in the exchange above.  The informant served in the U.S. Navy for 26 years before retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in 2017.  He learned this joke from other sailors in 2002 when he was stationed on a ship for the first time since enlisting in 1990.  He never got this joke played on him since he was more experienced when he was first on a ship, leading others to believe he had been stationed on a few before, nor did he play it on other sailors, mentioning how there were plenty of younger sailors to play pranks on the new seamen fresh out of boot camp.  He remembers this joke as a humorous part of the time he spent stationed on a ship, and also mentioned other funny rituals and jokes played on new sailors later on.

 

Analysis:

The mail buoy prank on new sailors is a classic example of practical jokes played to establish who is in and who is out of a particular identity, further distinguishing who has the knowledge and experience from who doesn’t.  In this case, the mail buoy practical joke is a way of legitimizing the change in identity from a new to a seasoned sailor.  Particularly in the military where a power structure determined by rank already officially exists, these kinds of practical jokes and other initiation rituals serve as a further distinguisher between those of different power, experience, and knowledge levels.  There are also other identities that transcend the official structure, such as being a sailor in the Navy since members may not always be initially stationed on a ship.  When the more knowledgeable, higher power, or more experienced individuals initiate the joke, they display the fact that they are in that particular identity (though it may not yet be known to those the joke is being played on).  Once the other individuals learn about the joke, though, or get the punchline in other words, they are now also in on that group.  In the mail buoy joke, seasoned sailors would know that mail is not actually delivered in a buoy to the ship, but the seamen straight out of boot camp may not and actually take the warning to find the buoy seriously.  The fact that the new seamen would believe in the buoy would clearly mark them as new sailors.  The humiliation of realizing the mail buoy is not a real thing would serve as an initiation ritual to the group of seasoned sailors and the recognition of the joke would be an internalization of this new change in identity.  These types of practical jokes, particularly in the military, are significant ways in which people ritualize a change in their identity and studying them, like in the mail buoy piece above, can indicate what change is occurring.

Folk speech
Humor

Shoe Polish: A Folk Insult?

You don’t know shit from Shinola.

According to the Informant, he heard this phrase growing up from his father. It was typically said by Person A in situations in which Person B doesn’t know what’s going on or for general naivety. It’s not exactly a proverb, because it ridicules those without wisdom instead of imparting wisdom. It can be said to be a folk insult. He said he heard this insult so many times, but it took until about the millionth time for him to realize that yes, it was true. He hadn’t the slightest clue what Shinola was.

This folk insult reportedly originated as commander-to-soldier vulgarity during WWII. The original form of the phrase involved a second verse. In the 1940’s, when is started popping up in military barracks, the full-length piece stated: “You don’t know shit from Shinola, and that’s why your shoes don’t shine.” This oicotype clearly allows anyone, using context clues, to decipher that Shinola is brown shoe polish. It’s interesting that the actual product named Shinola is long-gone, but it lives on in an insult.

It turns out that many insults without authors come from the military. “He doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground,” is another example of the same category that can be traced back to the military. Once we know the meaning behind the parts, it’s easy to see the meaning of the whole. Shinola would obviously be the choice pick over shit to shine shoes. Only a truly naïve person would use the two interchangeably.

This phrase always gets a smile out of me, regardless of context. This can possibly be regarded as the Informant’s catch phrase. In a way, it’s a passed-down insult, from my father’s father, that the majority of people today would be clueless to understand the meaning of. This fact, for a phrase meant to mock a person’s naivety, is just the icing on the cake.

 

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