USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘saying’

Driving rule in Jamaica

TK is my dad. Before moving to the United States his previous job required him to travel a lot. Luckily he enjoys traveling.


This past winter break the whole family gathered in New York and for New Years went on a family vacation to Jamaica. On the flight my dad and uncle shared their stories of their previous visits to Jamaica. On TK’s last visit to Jamaica he was in Kingston and one of the taxi drivers told his an interesting saying about driving in Jamaica.


“He told me that when it comes to driving in Jamaica there is one major rule you need to know if you plan on driving. “The left side is the right side, and the right side is suicide.””


As in the UK, traffic on Jamaica travels on the left in right hand drive vehicles. So if you drove on the right side, which is the wrong side haha, you will most likely have a car crash; thus being the suicide side. When we landed in Montego Bay the driver to the hotel resort told us the same saying. So obviously it is a popular saying there and how wouldn’t it be it rhymes, it’s catchy, funny and true.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

“Il n’a pas la lumière à tous les étages.”

JN is a 19 year old student at USC studying neuroscience and French.  Most of her family lives in Chicago, but they’re from various European countries. She has travelled the world extensively, and she lived in France during the second semester of her sophomore year of high school. Here is a humorous example of French folk speech that she learned that year:

This is a French proverb that I learned when I was living in France.

It goes “il n’a pas de lumière sur toutes les étages.”
And that basically translates to the English version of “He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or “He’s missing his marbles” or something like that. So it literally means “He doesn’t have light on all of his floors” so it means, oh he’s kind of missing something, or he’s kind of “dim”.

Where did you learn this from?
I heard my host mom and dad say it a lot especially over the phone when they were talking to their friends. I understood the words and it kind of made sense to me that it was that French translation of our English expression. I overheard it from them and then asked what it meant and then I made the connection.

Why do you like it?
Because I learned it from my host parents and it’s definitely a colloquial French saying- it makes me feel more fluent in French to know those things that you can’t just learn the classroom. Plus I think it’s kind of funny!


My thoughts: I agree with JN when she says that when it comes to learning a new language, it is the colloquial expressions-the folk speech-that makes the leaner feel that they are truly a part of that culture. It was interesting to see that this French proverb had parallels in English with “the light’s on but no one is home” or even “not the brightest bulb in the box”- different languages and cultures have similar ways of expressing the same idea figuratively.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Las Perlas de la Virgen

Title: - Las Perlas de la Virgen

Interviewee: Armando Vildosola

Ethnicity: Mexican-American

Age: 21

Situation (Location, ambience, gathering of people?): Just me and my older brother Armando, as I asked him to share his most important pieces of wisdom that our family has shared throughout the generations. We do this every so often as some way to strengthen the bonds that we have as brothers, something of a brother meeting or a brotherly bonding session. We are sitting in our home in San Diego around our dinner table, having just finished dinner. Out house is full of family walking about visiting from Mexico. We are both on spring break from school at USC.

Piece of Folklore:

Interviewee- “Las perlas de la Virgen”

Interviewer- “What is that?”

Interviewee- “Well it directly translates to the pearls of the Virgin. As in the Virgin Mary.”

Interviewer- “What does that mean to you?”

Interviewee- “Same thing it means to all Mexicans. It something that you use when you want to make fun of someone for valuing something too highly or when they expect too much. Something like, “You want me to pay you how much for that? What do you think that is, the pearls of the Virgin?” Things like that. It’s really common among all Mexicans.”

Interviewer- “Where did you first hear of this saying?”

Interviewee- “Oh everywhere in Mexico growing up. I remember that my mom specifically said it a lot, and soon when I was around 16 it found a way into the words that I use. I kind of starting using the words my mom used.”

Interviewer- “Why do you use it so much?”

Interviewee- “I don’t know really. I mean it’s just so easy to use and it’s really good for what it does. On one hand I guess that it does fill a need word-wise. But on the other hand using it reminds me of my mother, and my family that I have since lost. It makes me feel like a real Mexican when I use the phrase. I like it.”


This saying is common throughout Mexico, and one can see that it connects the Interviewee with his culture, even when he is living in the United States. It means more to the Interviewee than other people, but that it just this once case. This phrase is derived from the Catholic faith, and it makes sense that Mexicans would use such a phrase. Mexico is after all the most Catholic country in the world, total percentage of the population wise. It only makes sense for their faith to become a part of their daily lives, including the way they speak.

Tags: Mexico, Saying, Catholicism

folk metaphor
Folk speech


Original Script: “Meglio tardi che mai”

Literal Translation: “Better Late than that never”

Meaning: “It’s better to do a thing later than not to do it at all”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “When I came to America, I realized how different it is…Like the driving part. Americans are so angry when they are driving! They can be so impatient. Especially during, busy time, what is it called? Oh! The rush hour. I mean you cannot go anywhere, so just chill out and listen to music in the car. This is where I thought of the saying. Because you will get there, but you might be a little late.! People need to understand that! I have seen more accidents here than all my life in Italy!”

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. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about. The roads there are usually only one lane and even though it can get busy, people generally remain calm according to Silvia. She also said that compared to Italy, people are very reckless drivers in America.

Context of the Performance: Keeping Patience in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: When I first heard this saying, in the original Italian, and having learned Italian this semester, I knew the literal translation of the saying but not what it actually meant. In fact, I heard Silvia, murmur it when we were driving during rush hour, and that is when I conducted the interview with her.

Firstly, I believe this saying speaks volumes about the attitude Italians have. As the quote above suggests, not to stress about being on time, or to worry about things you cannot have control over. It is interesting how the translation is literally “that never” which means that there is only on never, and that it is singular. Thus, this also shows that Italians persevere in their everyday life and challenges that may come up during the day.

This saying, and the way it captures the Italian people’s attitudes, was encompassed my Silvia, again, during an event for the company we work for. During the event, Silvia kept repeating, “Meglio tardi che mai, Meglio tardi che mai, Meglio tardi che mai,” and while everyone was stressed out, Silvia kept calm and collected throughout the whole ordeal. Hence, this quote while encompassing Italian’s people way of life, it also perfectly encompasses Silvia’s personality. I can also vouch that many Italian people—specifically on the countryside, and where Silvia is coincidently from—are very much personified as being relaxed people because I had visited Italy in the past, and compared to the busy chaos of the big cities, like Verona and Venice, the countryside was very peaceful and seemingly stress-free. Perhaps, this would be a good saying for American’s to adapt to, particularly while driving. While it is not a proverb, but a saying, I believe the American people can benefit to making it a proverb, because as Silvia had mentioned, we do have a lot of car accidents precedent here.

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech

Stress Free Life

Original Script: “Ma cosa vuoi che sia”

Literal Translation: “But what you want it would be”

Meaning: “Don’t worry about a thing that is not important”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “How do you say, I noticed, Americans can get very…stressed out…crazy…easily. Like the rush hour traffic I was telling you about! Pessimo! [very bad] And little things they cannot control. I mean your life is more important than wherever you are trying to go! If you are stressed in California, go to the beach! It’s very relaxful! But the food, come si dice [how do you say], I understand when they get mad about the food, when the order is wrong, or when it is gross tasting, because food is important in the Italian culture.”

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. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about. Like the amount of stress Americans carry to that in Italy.

Context of the Performance: Stressing in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: In accordance with another interview I conducted with Silvia, (please see the article titled Italian…Proverb?), this Italian saying furthers the implication of the stress free environment of the Italian people. Do not worry about things that are not important, or the little things, implies that to worry about such, is a waste of energy, and not only that, but time as well.

It is also important to look at the literal translation, “but you want, it would be” suggesting that one does have control over their life, and to make the best out of it, if you look at the meaning to Italians, it would be to not stress over the small things; the things that are not important in the big picture.

Please take note of the background information Silvia had provided that was in accordance to the Italian quote. She uses stress and anger interchangeably, which makes me wonder, if in Italian they mean the same thing. So, I asked Silvia in a follow up interview and she said, “yes, they do, even though we have different words for them, they do mean about the same thing.” Which is interesting since the Italians have many different words for calm and happy (positive attitudes such as allegro, calmo, simpatico), thus this furthers the notion that Italians try their best to keep “stress” out of their lives, even by doing something simple, as Silvia had noted, like going to the beach. Additionally, she states something specifically that both Americans and Italians have in common, and which they both “stress” about—food. Food is a very prominent cultural item in both the Italian and American culture in which it not only creates a social environment but also holds roots in the past. (For example American’s Turkey on Thanksgiving and Wine or Pasta—which different regions are known for different Pastas—for the Italians).


“Faith over fear.”

Informant: At my gym, we always say, “Faith over fear.” And that was like something we used to say all the time, and that was the one point that I was even semi religious in my life.


My informant is a freshman at the University of Southern California. She is from San Diego, California. We had this conversation in the study room of my sorority house.


This is interesting because it somewhat can be related to a ritual before going out to perform. My informant was a cheerleader for a while, so this would work as a ritual and a superstition for some kind of performance she would ever do. It seems that many people have religious rituals they do before a performance, such as one of my informants doing the Catholic cross before going on in every ballet number she did. These manifest even in people who aren’t religious, and my informant is not religious anymore. This is interesting and shows some type of dependency on the idea of some hope for help from some other place, even without the belief that a God or higher power exists. It seems to be a type of mechanism that people just develop.

Folk speech

Tummy Full, Heart Happy

The informant is a student from my folklore class, and we ended up meeting and exchanging stories and superstitions one night.

Original Script

“Barriga llena, corazón contento”


“Belly full, heart happy”


“If your stomach is full of food, then your heart is content”

Background & Analysis

This is a saying that the informant’s mom says, and that the informant herself will say after a meal. She describes it as a little happy thing you say after eating to give thanks or show appreciation.

The informant’s mother is from a small, secluded town that is surrounded by mountains called Monjas in Guatemala. Although the town has become more modernized over the past few decades, many of the traditions and superstitions still circulate. The informant is from Boston, MA, but attends USC, and she often travels to Guatemala to visit family.

My dad, who is from Chile, has a variation of this saying, “Guatita llena, corazón contento.” This is translated as “Tummy full, heart happy,” and is used the exact same way the informant uses her variation of the saying. My dad most likely learned this from his father, whose vocabulary was full of proverbs and sayings.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Ethiopian Food Serving

The informant is a good friend from one of my clubs. We had met up for lunch and she shared many of her Ethiopian traditions and customs with me, as well as some superstitions of her people.

In Ethiopia, everyone at the dinner table eats the food from one dish, and no one has their own individual plate. The communal plate is very large, and an assortment of foods are served on it for everyone to share. Large pots of each type of food are made separately, and small portions are added to the communal plate at a time, since it’s not good to save leftovers that have been on the plate and touched. The saying is “it tastes like hands.” Therefore, leftovers are foods still in the pot that have yet to be touched, while the food on the communal plate is expected to be finished in that sitting.


The lesson is not overload the plate with food, since it can’t be eaten the next day because it will taste like the hands that touched it. Ethiopians eat their food with their hands instead of utensils, so the saying comes from this custom.

Background & Analysis

The informant is a student here at USC as well, and although her mother is from Ethiopia, she was born and raised here in California. However, she often goes back to Ethiopia with her mom to visit friends and family.

The meal serving tradition in Ethiopia is so different from what I’m used to here in America. We are accustomed to getting our own dish with a serving size of our own choice. Eating without utensils is also often seen as  mannerless behavior, unless the food is something such as chicken or corn on the cob. The Ethiopian dinner style is similar to the traditional Hawaiian way of eating, especially the eating with your hands part. The foods are in their own bowls, and the bowls are passed around to everyone present, who each in turn take one bite and pass the food along to the next person. This will continue until everyone is full or the food is gone. The sharing of food in such intimate ways in both cultures, definitely brings people together.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

A Deal With the Devil

I collected this piece of folklore from my dad while he was visiting. We ended up just sitting in the car in a parking lot while he shared some more Chilean folklore with me.

Original script 

“Un pacto con el Diablo”


” a deal with the devil”


You use this whenever you see someone in Chile doing very well. Especially someone young and very successful with lots of wealth. They think that people can sell their soul to the devil, and make a trade. If you’re poor and not doing well, you can ask the devil for help, and he will offer you whatever you want , but it will only be temporary, and in the end, the price to pay is often an early death.

My dad was raised in Rancagua, Chile, which is a city outside of Santiago in the 1950s and early 1960s. Back then and still today, religion has a very strong presence in Chile.

This saying can be seen as rooted in jealousy over what you don’t have, and in a way, is kind of like cursing someone for being  successful when you aren’t. This saying is well-known and used a lot in Chile.

Folk speech

“I’m Staying Another Week” – How Punchlines Pervade Daily Life

The informant is a 54 year old woman, who has lived in the United States all her life. She was raised by her mother and has no siblings. She attended school through college, and lives in downtown Chicago with her husband. The following is what she described as “folkspeech” from her mother-in-law.


Informant: “It’s from a joke. So, whenever, if we were having a disagreement, like your uncle and I, about anything, and you’d ask your Grandma’s opinion about it. Like, “What do you think?” She’d say, “The soup’s not hot, the soup’s not cold, and I’m staying another week.” It was a punchline to a joke about a married couple whose mother-in-law is there visiting and won’t leave so they stage a fight to try and make her leave. She realizes what they’re doing so she says, “the soup’s not hot, the soup’s not cold, and I’m staying another week.” So whenever I would try to get her involved, that’s what she would do. She said that all the time.


Interviewer: “Do you know where she heard the joke?”


Informant: “Oh, from Grandpa, I’m sure. He had so many jokes, you remember.


Interviewer: “Of course. Do you know where he got his jokes?”


Informant: “He would hear them and I guess kind of mentally collect them to tell.


Thoughts: Initially I was unsure as to whether or not this was folklore. The phrase itself doesn’t seem very “folkloric” in nature; neither does the informant’s in-law’s use of the phrase. However, when I thought about the phrase again, I realized that it is a form of folklore. The phrase itself came from the punch line of a joke—something that people learn from other people—and the informant’s mother-in-law took the punch line into a different context, her daily life. This is a perfect example of how folklore can traverse across different mediums and how it can be applied in different ways.