Tag Archives: proverb

Leaves of 3, Good TP


My 2 friends and I got together to exchange funny stories with each other. L is the storyteller in this, C is the second friend, and I am ‘Me.” My friend heard this modified version of a proverb from her dad, who read it in a newspaper article.


Main Piece


L: So you know how there’s like, “Leaves of 3, let it be”?


Me: Yeah


L: Umm, I think my dad heard it in a newspaper or something. He told me and I can’t stop thinking about it. Where it’s like – it was a newspaper competition to purposely give bad advice, and one of the winners was Leaves of 3, good TP. And so now every time I think of poison ivy, I think of leaves of 3, I don’t finish it with the normal proverb ending, I think, “Leaves of 3, good TP!” and then it’s all messed up in my head.


C: Is that because you have to like, itch your…?


L: Yeah, like good toilet paper and it’s bad advice. And another one was strangers have the best candy.



Original proverb: “Leaves of 3, let it be; berries white, take flight.”

The original proverb is a rhythm to teach people how to identify poison ivy and stay away from it, as contact with the plant causes severe itching and rashes. The play on words of this proverb in the text above is joking that leaves of three (poison ivy) makes good toilet paper! Well, the point of the newspaper article was to give bad advice. So you would not want to use poison ivy as toilet paper or you’ll have a serious rash in an uncomfortable location…


I thought this was a clever play on this proverb. I’ve heard of the original 3 leaves proverb and keep it in mind when I go hiking. Here is a link to another version of this proverb: http://www.stillmannc.org/Poison%20Ivy.pdf

A Sailor’s Proverb: Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning

The following is CL’s interpretation of the proverb, “Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight,” in a conversation.


“Red Sky at Morning, Sailor Take Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailor’s Delight”:


CL: The reason why [it’s called this] is [the following]. So, think sailors setting out to port at the first daylight; if the sky was red in the morning, that meant there was a lot of dust in the air and there was a chance that as you got out to sea, you’d get rained on because of the thickness in the air. So, if you got into a storm, it was bad for the sailor. Red sky at night meant it would be safe sailing because it would probably rain that night, and in the morning, you could set sail; you’d be safe to leave the port.


EK: Interesting, so where did you learn this from?


CL: That is an old, old story, and I think it probably goes back to the middle ages or before. I don’t know if it’s European in nature or if it’s something that was developed here. I learned it from my mother, though, who for some reason knew everything about sailing and sailing stories.


EK: So, what does this story mean to you, then?


CL: Well I’m not really much of a sailor, I just know the proverb exists. The closest tie I have to it is from my mother, so I guess it connects me to her in some way. I’m not sure if it’s still implemented today, but I’d imagine it is or was a pretty big superstition for sailors.


My Interpretation:

I’ve never heard this proverb before, most likely because I’ve never come in contact with a sailor. It could be true, or maybe it was something only used back in the day, before new technology has allowed us to set sail during a little rain or thunderstorm. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a red sky; it’s possible that the redness could be from pollution- I’ve heard that the deeper the sunset, the more particles from pollution. However, it is interesting to me that this is/was such a superstition for sailors. I can only assume that in past times they would have had to be more careful when setting sail because they didn’t have the knowledge of the seas or technology that they do today that could have given them more peace of mind and less uncertainty in their travels.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

The following is AJ’s interpretation of the proverb, “The Early Bird Gets the Worm.”


“The Early Bird Gets the Worm”:

The bird that is up first will get to the worm before another bird gets to it, and eats it, instead. Meaning, the earlier that one gets up, starts a project, etc., the better chance they have at having success compared to one who starts their day later. In other words, it pays to be proactive; don’t be lazy.


AJ doesn’t remember when she began to say this, she recalls her father saying it a lot to her when she was a kid. AJ went on to say it to her kids all the time to get them up and ready for the upcoming day, and now her kids say it as well. It’s a proverb that has been passed through the family and AJ says she will probably never stop saying it.


My Interpretation:

I feel like this is a very common proverb that I’ve heard said, and that I’ve said, in several different ways. I’ve heard “The early bird catches the worm,” “you don’t want to be a late bird, do you?”, “go get that worm!”, and more. There are several variations to this proverb, many of which I have never heard, but I think they all mean the same thing.

I think this proverb is also reflective of core American values, though I’m not sure when people began saying it. American values of being hard-working, ethical, energetic, and starting the day off bright and early, are all very apparent in this proverb. When AJ said the proverb, when I say it, and when others say it, it is said in a very matter-of-fact tone, like it’s a logical explanation. I believe that almost every American child grows up hearing this proverb at least once, most likely from their parents when they were trying to get them out of bed and ready for their day when they were younger.

Crooked Dog Tail Proverbial Phrase

Informant: There is a saying in Telugu that goes కుక్క తోక వంకర (kukka tōka vankara), which translates literally to “dog’s crooked tail.” Basically, even if you try to straighten out a dog’s curly tail, it goes right back to the way it was. That’s what I think applies to you when you forget to empty the dishwasher.

Context: The informant is an Indian immigrant who grew up in a Telugu household, which is a Southern Indian ethnic group. The informant said this proverb to me when I failed to do something that I promised I would. She likes to use this saying often, and whenever she says it, it is usually make the recipient feel shameful about their own actions.

Analysis: The informant had learned this proverb from her family whenever she failed to kick a habit. The proverb is a reflection of Indian culture surrounding bad habits along with its tendency to use animal metaphors, especially those that include dogs. Stray dogs are very common in the country, so the animal is often equated with immoral or flawed people. This proverb is a reflection of human nature, and our tendency to go back to the way that we actually are despite our best efforts to change ourselves. The simple 3-word proverb is easy to remember due to its accurate representation of people and its applicability to everyday life. However, the proverb is only ever used to remind people of their bad habits, rather than their good ones. This is a reflection of the fact that stray dogs are usually seen as immoral or flawed.

The simple 3-word proverb is easy to remember due to its accurate representation of people and its applicability to everyday life. In order for a proverb to be easily remembered, repeated, and used on a regular basis, it needs to be “catchy,” or rather, witty so that it can stick with those that hear it. Whenever I slip into poor habits, I recall this proverb–with or without someone saying it to me. If the proverb was not easily remembered, then it would have no cultural significance any more.

Don’t let the bugs bite


“Sleep tight, don’t let the bugs bite. If they do hit ‘em with a shoe, and they’ll turn black and blue!”



The informant knows this saying because her parents would always say it to her right before she went to sleep every night. It reminds her of childhood and she remembers that when she was younger, it comforted her because it gave her a sense of power over the things she couldn’t control (like monsters under the bed or in this case, bugs in the bed). She currently thinks it’s just a silly rhyme but would also like to pass it on to her children some day.



The informant is a college student in Southern California and grew up in Orange County. She grew up in a nice area and went to a local public school.



Interestingly enough, one time when I was babysitting, I said “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite!” to the kid I was babysitting because I remembered that my mother use to always say that to me. To my surprise, the boy got very upset and scared that there were bugs in his bed. When I was a kid, I knew that this was a very common phrase, so I did not take it literally, but I saw firsthand how this nursery rhyme might be scary to young children. This version that the informant told me about fixes that problem by giving the child some sense of control over this fictional bed bugs by giving him or her a sufficient way to take care of the problem (by hitting the bed bugs with a shoe).


The Eagle with Brains Hides its Claws


Interviewer: “Do you have any advice or something that your parents told you that you still remember?”

I.N.: “Well… kinda… your mom’s Bachan was so mean to me. I would call my mother crying… crying. She would say to me ‘the eagle with brains, hides it claws.’  I think she meant that no matter how mean someone is to you, don’t let them provoke you, you know. So I was always held my tongue when she was around!”

*the informant is elderly and does not speak Japanese as fluently as she once did. Although the original proverb was in Japanese, she could not recall how to speak the proverb in Japanese*


Informant I.N. is an elderly Japanese woman. She was born in a Japanese Internment camp and grew up with second generation Japanese American parents who spoke primarily Japanese. She was raised in south Los Angeles in an area that was mostly filled with Japanese American Immigrant workers. She came from a middle class family. Her mother ran a boarding house and her father was a gardener. She moved to northern California in her twenties and raised her family there. She still resides in Northern California today and spend much of her time volunteering at the San Jose Japanese Town Yu-Ai Kai Senior Center and Buddhist Church.


Informant I.N. and I were sitting at a restaurant for lunch and I thought I would ask a few questions for my folklore project. She recalled a time from her past when she was struggling with maintaining civility but ultimately was able to overcome hardship by following the advice of her mother.


I.N. interpreted this piece of advice to mean that despite the anger she felt towards her mother in-law, it was better to hide her passionate emotions and be kind because it would lead to a more pleasing relationship. She learned this folklore proverb from her mother and it stuck with her because she found it to be a relevant and intelligent piece of advice. I think this reflects on the Japanese cultural trend of not wanting to be overzealous or create tension. Generally, Japanese people are known for their polite nature and this proverb that tells its listener to hide their feelings essentially is a great example of that.



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.

The Whiter the Bread, the Quicker You’re Dead — Health Proverb


The following piece was collected from a young woman from Denver, Colorado. She will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “Before I went vegan, my dad would say to us whenever he thought we were being unhealthy. He would say we weren’t allowed to have white bread, only wheat.”

Collector: “What did he say?”

Informant: “He would say, ‘The whiter the bread, the quicker you’re dead.’”

Collector: “Haha…that’s good. What do you think he meant?”

Informant: “Oh, obviously he was just trying to scare us into believing that if we ate unhealthily, we would die…haha… kind of mean but pretty effective, as far as I can remember.”


            The Informant learned the piece from her father when she was a child. She believes its meaning is pretty clear – if you eat unhealthy food, like white bread, then you are more likely to reap the consequences. The Informant believes that it was simply a saying used to frighten children into eating more healthily. She has always remembered the saying because of its catchiness, but also because when she made the decision to become vegan, she also gave up white bread. She laughs now at the fact that her father can no longer remind her that if she eats white bread, she may die sooner.


            I believe this saying to be very interesting but not uncommon within a parent-child relationship. It is easy to understand the many ways parents try to persuade their children to act correctly and do the right thing. This is just one of the many examples of that form of parenting. “White the bread, the quicker you’re dead” is reminiscent of the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. In both cases, these sayings serve as a warning to a child – to be healthy and safe. But looking deeper, the saying can serve as a reminder that you reap what you sow – if you do something that will negatively affect you, there is no one to blame but yourself.

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.


College/Education Proverb


Informant: “I went to college to get a diploma, it would have been just as easy to get an education.”


The informant learned this saying from his grandfather upon graduating from high school in Ohio. He found it highly impactful, not only in the context of college, but as a general life lesson as well, and took care to heed this advice going forwards.


This expression and the conversation leading up to it were recorded during a scheduled meeting that took place at my home in San Diego, CA.


Although on the surface this saying may seem very specific, I think the lessons it implies can be applied to all walks of life. It stresses the importance of finding value in all aspects of an experience, as opposed to seeing something simply as a means to an end. It is certainly an expression I will remember and perhaps help spread in the future.