USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘proverb’

And That’s Why the Bear Lost It’s Tail


“Do you have any Romanian proverbs?”

Well there’s this Romanian story about how the bear lost it’s tail. I don’t remember how it goes, but I remember it, because every time I did something that disappoint my mom, she would look at me and go ‘And that’s why the bear lost its tail’

“Does it have an exact meaning”

It does in Romanian, but that’s how it’s translated–it doesn’t really make the same sense in English.

Informant & Context:

My informant is a student at the university of southern California, originally from Sammamish, Washington and of Romanian descent. She described her family as very Americanized. This proverb originates from a Romanian origin myth about why the bear has no tail.


It’s interesting to me that the informant does not actually remember the story, but simply the title—which has become a proverb in her family (if it was not already one). Aside from that, it doesn’t really have a direct meaning, instead it is more a vague association with shame and disappointment. It sounded like the phrase was used to be comedic—as more of a punch line.

Folk speech

“Don’t Jump the Gun” in Norwegian

“Okay, so it’s this thing, and it’s literally translated, ‘Don’t sell the bear’s pelt.’ Is that what it is? Pelt is fur? Yeah, ‘Don’t sell the bear’s pelt before it’s shot.’ It literally means, like, don’t celebrate until it’s happened. Don’t, don’t, don’t jump the gun. But in Norwegian we say that about hunting and bears. *laughs*  So yeah, it literally, but yeah that’s one term.”


The source talked about this proverb with particular passion because he really likes it. He says he tries to live by this proverb so that he doesn’t get too far ahead of himself. The source is a filmmaker, so he has a lot of grand ideas, and he says that if he sells the bear’s pelt before it’s shot, there’s a chance it’ll bite him in the butt later because he may not always be able to come through with his projects. He says it’s better to celebrate step-by-step than assuming you’re going to be successful the entire way.

I very much like this proverb as well, particularly because we don’t have one like this in the US. Or at least, I’ve never heard one quite like it. I know I’ve heard the sentiment before from my parents, but I think the phrasing is pretty unique. The message is also great. What does it say about Norwegians? Perhaps that once, their egos were large, so they have to weigh down their pride using proverbs like this.

This proverbs speaks to patience and wisdom. Also, the fact that it phrases in terms of bears is interesting. It makes it even more uniquely Norwegian. You wouldn’t get this proverb in, say Cuba for example or Peru even. Because those countries don’t have bears. For Norway, though, bear hunting is huge. They need the pelts for making clothing and blankets to protect from the cold, which gets awful in Norway for half of the year.


Chinese Proverb: Wish for Plums to Quench Your Thirst

Informant is a 53 year-old Chinese female. She was born and raised in Beijing, China, and now lives in Southern California.

Informant’s folklore: In China, there’s a proverb called “Wish for Plums to Quench Your Thirst.” Cao Cao and Liu Bei were at war. But during the war, the troops walked a lot and trekked for a long time, so much so that they were tired and couldn’t walk anymore. So, they were thirsty and tired. So Cao Cao said, “Hey we should keep walking forward! Ahead there’s a garden of plum trees, and when we get there, there will be water.” So this proverb means that when you hear of plums, your mouth starts to water, and when your mouth salivates, it satisfies your thirst.

Collector: Where did you hear this proverb?

Informant: Everyone knows about this story, and I heard it from my mother.

Collector: Do you like this proverb? What does it mean to you?

Informant: Yes, because to me it sounds like when you’re so tired, or worn out doing something, if you have hope, you can make it to the end.

This proverb originated from Chinese history dating to thousands of years ago. I think that there’s a universality to the meaning of the proverb, in that it’s about human will power. The proverb shows how despite your physical conditions, your mind can overcome hardship and keep you going to accomplish your goals.

Folk speech

No Friends on a Powder Day

Information on the Informant: Troy Dixon, the informant of this particular saying, is a 20 year old student who attends Lafayette college in Pennsylvania. He plays college football there and is a linebacker. Troy grew up in Santa Monica, California and attended high school in Los Angeles. Ever since he was born, Troy was an avid skier. He went up with his family to their house in Mammoth every week that was possible during the winter. Because he skied so often he became extremely skilled and became a member of the Mammoth mountain ski team. This only lasted for a few years, however, because it was such a large time commitment. However, Troy has remained an expert skier who frequently travels around California skiing the tallest and fastest mountain. This particular proverb was something he introduced to me numerous times since I met him in 2012 and something he frequently told me while we were on the mountain together.

Me: “What exactly is the proverb that you always say when you’re on the mountain and there is fresh snow?”

Informant: “The saying goes, ‘There are no such thing as friends on a powder day’.”

Me: “So what exactly does this saying mean?”

Informant: “Okay so what this means is that when there is new snow on the mountain, or ‘powder,’ as a lot of skiers and snowboarders call it, you have no friends, aka skiing the fresh snow takes priority over skiing or conversing with your friends. It pretty much means that nothing, especially not your friends, can distract you from being able to ski the amazing snow.”

Me: “Where was the first time you heard this saying?”

Informant:”My dad told me about it when I was 6 years old and when I went to the top of the mountain for the first time and skied in powder. My dad has skied for 30 years and is an expert skier so he learned it from some of his friends who he went to the mountain with over the years.”

Analysis: This saying is a traditional skiers proverb. It appears that it is one of those sayings that most people know but aren’t exactly sure of the direct origin. The informant, Troy, also stated that his father has skied all over the world and heard the saying before in other states besides California.

Folk speech

Arabic Proverb

Original Script:

القرد بعين امو غزال

Phonetic (Roman) script: Al gird be ain umo ghazaal.

Transliteration: Al gird be ain umo ghazaal.

Full translation: The monkey in the eye of its mother is a gazelle.

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “I like this because it just is an example of how the Arabic language can be both poetic and really harsh. Arabic is a language where you can write a whole paragraph based off of one insult. We take our insults very seriously and can’t just say ‘F you!’, you have to do better and this is a good one because it’s saying your ugly but in the most round about way possible.

I can’t remember where I learned it but it must have been around high school.

It’s used around people you know it’s not something you say in polite company. There are a lot of poetic ways to insult people in Arabic.”

Context of the Performance: Insulting a person but politely

Thoughts about the piece: Foremost, I have to say the background on this proverb is hilarious and made me laugh so hard the way Reem had explained it to me. The fact that it is a polite way to tell someone, “you are ugly,” is really interesting. This, of course, is considering that in the English language, there is really no way to tell someone “you’re ugly” politely, except for maybe, “you are not the ugliest.” I also found it interesting how, when Reem said it and noted it in her background of the piece, that it was very poetic, and it did not sound like an insult at all, in fact, I thought, when I first heard it, it was actually a really prominent, as well as polite, saying, but it turned out to be a prominent insult instead. It is interesting that it sounded so nice at first, and that things in Arabic sound “poetic” because that is certainly not the case in English. Furthermore, it is interesting that Reem states: “there are a lot of poetic ways to insult people in Arabic,” which seems that the language in itself is beautiful, and there are no brash insults but rather poetic ones.

When Reem had translated this proverb to me, “The monkey in the eye of its mother is a gazelle,” I actually thought it met that a mother is always proud of her children no matter what they seem like to society. Although, I guess that this is the case with proverbs, in which they do not really make sense to the other culture when they are translated into that culture’s language. For example, they are only relative to that specific culture. Thus, this Arabic “saying” becomes an Arabic Proverb.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Liars in Italy

Original Script: “La bugie hanno le gambe corte”

Literal Translation: “Liars have short legs”

Meaning: “if you lie, you will be caught soon”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “My mother use to tell me this when I was a child. I have not heard anything like it in the English language. But in Italy…we do walk a lot…almost everywhere in our small towns…which may have something to do with it, I don’t know. But you hear this when mother’s our scolding their children, or an everyday expression when you think someone is lying”

Silvia recently came to America about three weeks ago as an intern for an Event planning company. She grew up in Parma, Italy—which is a small town in Italy. Her mother use to tell her this phrase all the time (as she noted in the background she provided), and she grew up always remembering that phrase. To this day, she tries her hardest not to lie. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about.

Context of the Performance: Lying in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: I thought this was an interesting proverb, considering the comparison Silvia had made to the American culture in the background information she had provided. She had noticed that she does not know why Italian culture uses the term “short legs” except for the fact that they walk everywhere. This does not seem like a ridiculous claim seeing as in Europe, in general, people mostly walk. When I was in Europe, I noticed not only how much I walked but also how much everyone walked compared to that in America. Furthermore, I noticed how small there cars were, which could be correlated to the fact that most people do not use a car—seeing as America consists of big SUVS, and even the “small” cars have a decent amount of room.

Additionally, this made me question if short people, in general, were considered liars. In a follow up interview, Silvia had laughed and said that not usually, just that your legs shrink when you lie. This initiated me to compare to the common tale of Pinocchio, and while his legs do not shrink, his nose grows every time he lies. Thus it is interesting, that in both stories, there is a physical disfigurement of a person when they lie, showing their lie to the world—a marking of sorts. Hence, they are not only branded a liar but their body is branded as well.

Moreover, both stories are used to scare children into not lying, as a societies way of showing social control. So while this proverb has the obvious sentiment of not to lie, there is also the aesthetic of social control that lies within it.



D is a 57 year old man. He is a practicing cardiologist at a hospital in the northern suburbs of Illinois. He identifies as American as he grew up in Boston, but he strongly associates with his Scottish heritage as well. D completed his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth University and he attended Cornell University for his degree in medicine. During his studies, both undergraduate and med school, D studied abroad in France two times. While in medical school, D studied at the Faculté de Médecine et de Maïeutique de Lille in Lille, France. English is his primary language, yet he is also fluent in French.

D: Funny thing, it’s hard to remember proverbs out of the blue. They’re so associated with experiences that I usually only think of them in context. On the other hand, I use them all the time to explain things to patients because they get complex ideas across in a familiar and easy way.

Me: What proverbs do you use often?

D: Well, I just used “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” today when talking with a colleague of mine about treating his wife’s normal blood pressure. She gets distressed in some doctor’s offices & her blood pressure rises. In the end we both agreed that “things are normal & should not be messed with.”

Me: Any other proverbs you use?

D: Another classic I use all the time with patients is “if you don’t use it, you lose it” as a universally-recognized motivation to “get off your butt.”  I’ve tried it with my dad too, but with no success.  My mom and I even mapped out their condo on a piece of paper with distances marked and put it on the fridge in hopes of encouraging him to get out and walk.

D: There’s also: “the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” This is a recent one which is a favorite of mine, by a pastor in New York named Ralph Sockman, who preached in the 1930s-1960s.  My corollary has been “the more the islands of knowledge, the greater the archipelago of understanding.”

Me: What do you mean by that?

D: What I am trying to say is the more stuff you know, the more stuff you understand. I say this to my son a lot. It’s using the things you learn in life like putting the pieces of a puzzle together in order to understand other stuff.

D, while having a bit of trouble at the beginning trying to remember a proverb, ended up talking about three proverbs that he really likes and uses a lot. He uses proverbs in his everyday life, especially with his patients at work, to get across a point that might otherwise be confusing, or maybe even boring. By using proverbs and saying things in a different way, it is more likely to reach someone than by saying the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different reaction every time. So while proverbs didn’t seem to be a prominent part of D’s everyday speech, they are something he uses very frequently.


Han får gå lenge barfot som venter på å arve en annen mann’s sko

My informant is a friend and sophomore student at USC from Norway. She lived for the majority of her life in Norway before moving and living in Thailand, Dubai, and Namibia until she attended college. Having lived for over a decade in Norway, Norwegian is her primary language.


“And uh, there’s one more that I like—Han får gå lenge barfot som venter på å arve en annen mann’s sko that translates to ‘you’re going to have to walk barefoot for a long time if you’re waiting for someone to pass you down their old shoes.’ This basically means that eh…you won’t get any—anything for free in life and that you have to work for what you want.”


This particular proverb seems like one that would ring true with many American ideals. It essentially states that you have to work for anything that you really want in life, otherwise you’re just going to end up waiting for something that may never come. This particular saying was one that my informant hears frequently throughout her life and instilled the belief that you cant just be passive and wait on life to drop opportunity on your doorstep, you actually have to put in conscious effort and work for the things that you truly want most.


Only A Stupid Child Falls More Than Once at the Door

My informant is the mother of a USC student. She is an immigrant from Cameroon and came to America with her husband and son before giving birth to their daughter.


“Most of the houses have entrance doors that are raised. There are no accommodations for the less able….everyone is expected to get in and out. If you fall or trip once, you should remember the next time you approach the door. If you miss again, you will be considered incompetent.”


Analysis: This proverb is essentially one that states that you should learn from your mistakes and from past experiences. If you trip once at the door, an intelligent person would remember the next time they encounter it, whereas a person who is oblivious will trip again because they did not pay attention the first time. Though the proverb can be applied to all situations where people fail to learn from their mistakes, the use of the word child implies that the person who is hearing the proverb—regardless of age—is acting like one. It exemplifies the expectation in the Cameroonian community to learn from your mistakes and take care not to make them again.


Folk speech

Track is Life

My informant is a senior member of the USC track and field team. He is of African American descent and is entirely dedicated to his sport.


Track is life. To eat healthy—these are words I learned from J.P—to eat healthy, to practice hard, to watch videos and film and study other people and how they run and how to help yourself run. So you just eat, breathe, sleep track. Its all you think about, its all you do. It’s a thing, it’s a thing actually, but it can also be applied to other sports. Like, ball is life. Like when n****s eat, drink, and sleep basketball. So like even if you *motions twisting his ankle* you just keep goin cause its life.”


Analysis: This proverb exemplifies the lifestyle of the person or people who use it. The statement is simple but powerful “track is life” meaning that everything that that individual does, is for track. I thought that this piece was particularly interesting because the noun in the beginning of the proverb can be changed depending on the sport and the groups of athletes that use it. Track is life for someone who runs, but “ball is life” for another individual who plays basketball or football. The universality of the proverb is part of what makes it so powerful, it can be applied to almost anyone and anything with simple changes to the word choice. It is also something that can be universally understood, because anyone who is in love with their sport will understand what the speaker is saying when they state that “Track is life” or “Ball is life” etc.