USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘saying’
Proverbs

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.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Itchy Palms – Ukrainian Superstition

“My grandmother tells me that if you have itchy palms, that means that someone will be at the door soon and you will need to shake their hand.”

Context: The informant, TH, is a second-generation Ukrainian-American. She lives with her Ukrainian immigrant grandparents, and tell my friends and I various slightly absurd and random superstitions that her grandmother reminds her of. For TH, she does not actually believe in this superstition, but regardless she still brings it up if she sees me itching my palms.

Analysis: This superstition contains many of the qualities that folk belief and superstitions contain. While most superstitions are somewhat confusing and irrational to people outside that culture, it is rooted in certain traditions and beliefs of the culture. In Ukrainian culture, the doorway and the threshold holds a special power; thus there are various superstitions involving doors. For example, you are not allowed to sit on a doorstep because the ashes of the family’s ancestors would be buried under the doorstep. While the informant did not actually know this backstory, there is some importance that is held for doorways in Ukrainian culture which is evidenced by this superstition.

On a side note, it is also interesting to see another sign superstition that involves itchy palms–the one that is more widely known in the U.S. is that itchy palms means that you receive some money soon. This is an interesting dichotomy, and shows the difference between the two cultures. For Americans, we look favorably upon money and see it as something we all want, while in Ukraine, itchy palms is sometime equated with having to shake hands with someone. This could be indicative of the power that the threshold holds, and also the Ukrainian value of hospitality and generosity. Many Ukrainian festivals and traditions are open to people of all cultures and faiths, and always feed their guests well.

Folk speech

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.

Folk speech

Sleep well in your old bett gestell

Text:

“Sleep well in your old bett gestell”

Genre: Phrase / saying

Background: The interviewee, VP, is an American middle-aged female. VP resides in Northern California and comes directly from Austria and Latvian descent. VP’s heritage and traditions are deeply influenced by her Austrian descent and capability to speak both German and English. The folklore originated in Austria and was translated from German to English. The original German translation of “Schlaf gut in deinem bett gestell” translates loosely to “sleep well in your bed frame,” but means that the sturdiness and safety of your bed will allow you to sleep well. VP states that the phrase is used at night before either going to bed or tucking someone in. It can be said amongst adults and children alike, but is primarily used by parents and grandparents of German descent when tucking in their children at night. VP notes that she learned this from her Austrian great grandmother who passed it down verbally to her daughter, then down to her.

Nationality: Austrian
Location: origin: Austria, practiced: America
Language: English German hybrid

Interpretation: Like most oral traditions, these are passed down from generation to generation. What I find extremely interesting is that by definition, folklore contains variation and multiplicity, much like the phrase that has been passed down to VP throughout generations. Over time and through Americanization, the phrase has gone from the native tongue to shift into a mixture between both American and Austrian cultures as both languages are present in the phrase. This is seen more commonly within those who are capable of speaking both American and Spanish. People with this bilingual capability are often seen speaking both languages at the same time that some may call “Spanglish.” This blend of languages makes it extremely hard for someone who is monolingual to translate or make sense of quotes or conversations, thus causing a loss in translation as seen with the Austrian phrase presented above. What I also find interesting is that the original phrasing’s translation into English doesn’t make all that much sense, but in the native tongue of Austrian it carries a far deeper meaning. However, the mixture of the two languages does not lose any emphasis or meaning as the words become more of a phrase or saying that carries meaning versus a straight language translation.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Guang Hua has 30 floors; a jump solves a thousand troubles.

Context
The informant is a freshman at Fudan University. We were talking about our lives as college students when she brought up this item.

Piece
光华三十楼,一跃解千愁
Roman form: Guang Hua san shi lou, yi yue jie qian chou.
Transliteration: Guang Hua thirty floors, a jump solves a thousand troubles.
Full translation: All trouble will be solved if you jump from the top of the 30-story-tall Guanghua Building.

Analysis
According to my informant, Guanghua Building is 2 strangely tall buildings at Fudan University. They are 30-story tall, while most other buildings are only 4-5 story tall. Facilities in the buildings are mainly offices.
Besides, this is a parody of a Chinese line from an old book called Zeng Guang Wen Xian

三杯通大道,一醉解千愁
Roman form: San bei tong da dao, yi zui jie qian chou.
Transliteraition: 3 cups to big road, a drunk solves a thousand trouble.
Full translation: A few shots of alcohol delight people, while being drunk solves all the trouble.

The original line explained how alcohol kills all the bad mood. In the parodic version, suicide is likened to alcohol, because once you are dead, you wouldn’t need to worry about anything else. As a parody, this item sounds like it should be dealt with seriously, which adds to its funniness. For the students, they are aware of and even empathetic with college students who commit suicide, especially as a result of academic anxiety. By expressing this possible outcome in a funny way, the students find a solution to solve a cognitive disagreement: a) to kill off anxiety in an extreme way; b) to never think about extreme conducts such as committing suicide.

Childhood
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Protection
Proverbs

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

Text

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.”

Context

            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.

Interpretation

            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.

Folk speech

Straight Pocket Bet

Piece:

Informant: “My grandfather loved the Reds, the Cincinnati Reds, but he didn’t hear well, so he had this radio that he would put up on a ledge at his house, it was just about your height. So he would go stand by that, with his good… with his better ear up against the radio and listen to a ball game from start to finish. And we would see them every Sunday, this was part of our routine, and he would always want to make a bet… I think I did this with you guys too… so we would negotiate a bet about the Reds or something and we would finally shake hands and he would say straight pocket bet. ‘Well, what’s that mean grandpa?’ I would say. And he always responded: ‘no matter what happens we each keep our money in our pocket.’”

Background:

The informant learned the expression “straight pocket bet” from his grandfather and their tradition of listening to Cincinnati Reds games together. To the two it was a way of instilling friendly competition without the actual need for financial stakes, and it allowed them to bond over sports, which has always been an interest for the family.

Context:

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

Thoughts:

My initial reaction to this was that it provided an easy platform over which to debate sports topics, or anything that might be negotiated with a bet for that matter. However, another interesting potential use of this could be to deceive someone who has no knowledge of this expression into making such a bet, and only letting them know what it means in the case of a loss (although this might be potentially dangerous if used in the wrong situation).

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

Turkish Barking Dog Proverb

Informant:

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.

Context:

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”

Thoughts:

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.

Folk speech
general

“On blood”: Los Angeles Inner-City Gang Saying

Informant:

Due to some self-incrimination, the informant wishes to remain anonymous, and thus I will only use his first initial. A is a 22-year-old, African American male who grew up in Southern California. He dropped out of high-school and did not attend college. He now lives in Southern California and works as a mechanic.

Background info:

A and I grew up in a similar environment. We met when we were both around 12 and 13 in the Los Angeles foster care system. Because foster-parents rarely kept track of the children and usually did not keep them fed or clothed, A has been heavily involved in gang-related activities since I met him. His home environment was abusive, and he was subjected to drugs early in life, as well.

Context:

Because A and I lived in a few foster-homes together, we have a shared tragedy, and thus a bond where he felt comfortable to talk to me. I invited him over to discuss how he had been since I last saw him, and we eventually began discussing the state of current Hip-Hop music. This piece is a phrase popular in his vocabulary, and, for context, the following is a transcript of the conversation we had that led to the phrase being said. (I will be represented with a J.)

Main piece:

J: “Have you heard the diss tracks between Joyner Lucas and Tory Lanez?”

A: “Yeah, I heard ‘em. I can’t believe this fool Tory think he can just come into the rap game and claim to be the best. Joyner clowned on this fool on his own track.”

J: “Yeah, his song was fire. He’s actually pretty lyrical, as well. I’m glad he and Eminem did a track together. I thought for sure they’d get an Emmy for it.”

A: “Man, you know Eminem is done. That man ain’t getting any more awards – his whole career was built on being the only white boy who could spit. The hype has been over for years. Ain’t nobody out there listening to him, only the white people who want to think they apart of it.”

J: “Do you think Eminem should get praise for his lyricism, though?”

A: “On blood, if Eminem tried to blow today, he wouldn’t sell a single track. Half the stuff he be saying goes over everybody’s head, man.”

Thoughts:

Growing up in the poor areas of Los Angeles, without help from home, a lot of children and young teens end up joining gangs. The gangs become their new families, and people would die for that. A was one of these kids and ended up joining a subset of the Bloods gang. I was familiar with this when I met him. Because he was so young, the gang influence became a major part of his life. “On blood”, or “On the blood”, is a common street phrase among Blood gang members. It is typically used as a promise or swear, meaning “I swear to the Blood gang”, like when people say, “I swear to God” or “I swear on my mother’s grave”. Swearing to something important represents a promise that you would never break without breaking faith with the thing you swear to. This phrase is common because the culture of gang life is to value the gang over everything else, even religion or one’s own life.

Folk speech
Life cycle
Proverbs

Turkish Maturity/Repetition Proverb

Informant:

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 Devran 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.

Context:

This is a Turkish phrase that D’s parents would say around the house when he was younger. He would also repeat this to his younger siblings when they would act up to try to show them that they are misbehaving. The following is the context for which it was said.

Me: “Are there any other phrases or sayings that your parents would say to you? Or Turkish phrases you would hear them say to themselves?”

D: “Um… Well, my brother, sister, and I were always misbehaving. When we would act out, my mother would not punish us with the traditional spanking… Instead, she would try to show us what we were doing wrong and ask us whether or not we would want to be doing this when we were old and gray. One of the phrases in Turkish that she would use was ‘İnsan yedisinde ne ise yetmişinde de odur’, which means that people who repeat bad actions at a young age, without realizing that they are bad, will continue them for the rest of their life.

Main piece:

Turkish: “İnsan yedisinde ne ise yetmişinde de odur”

English Translation: “What a man is at seven, he is at seventy”

Thoughts:

I later asked him if he could relate this phrase to any other common phrases he knew. He could not think of any, but it got me thinking about why this phrase existed. It speaks of childish behavior in a negative light, and almost ties it directly to immaturity, which I understand for the most part, but feel it is a bit overextending. Not all childish behavior is bad, and I think that is why his parents would use this phrase sparingly, to not discourage the good behavior. I think that this phrase is important in their family dynamic and in Turkish culture because they seem to value self-improvement over discipline. Showing someone their actions are wrong seems more important than punishing them for it. I have heard the American phrase “remaining childish is a tremendous state of innocence,” and I think it follows their family values as well.

 

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