USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘sayings’
Folk speech
Proverbs

“The Best Construction”

Context & Analysis

The subject, my mother, and I were getting coffee for breakfast and I asked her if she could tell me some stories about her childhood. The subject’s father (who has recently passed away) was a history professor in the Midwest. The family moved frequently because of this, which made it difficult for them to settle in a single area for too long. The subject’s mother was a stay-at-home mother; she also has four other siblings. The subject’s parents were both the children of Norwegian immigrants and emphasized the value of hard work and wise spending habits. I think that this proverb reflects the down-to-earth and positive nature of the subject’s father. I haven’t encountered the exact version of this proverb anywhere else, but similar sayings exist sharing the theme of ‘seeing the best in other people’.

Main Piece

“My dad would always say, like, if we would complain about another person and say they were really mean he would say “Put the best construction on everything” so you don’t know, maybe they had good intentions, so think the best of other people.”

 

Customs
folk metaphor
folk simile
Folk speech
Humor
Proverbs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Good Old Grandpa

Over the past few years, I’ve heard snippets of this friend’s crazy grandpa. Many nights, we’d eat together and share stories of our nutty families, as we both share lineage with what many would call ‘eccentrics’. Self purportedly from a family comprised of 50% white trash and 50% religious explorers, he grew up around a variety of funny saying and stories.

The following was recorded during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“He had a lot of sayings for like the weather. ‘It’s colder than a witch’s tit’. Or, ‘it’s darker than a snake’s asshole.’ There were a lot of asshole things too. ‘Colder than a well-digger’s ass’. ‘I’d rather have acid poured down the crack of my ass than…’ ‘I’m so hungry I could eat the ass out of a dead gorilla’. ‘You talk like you have a paper hat’. ‘You talk like your ass is made of paper’. ‘Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which one fills up first’. ‘Tough titties said the kitty’. He said that one a lot. ‘As useless as tits on a hoe-handle’. ‘Nervous as a whore in church’. ‘Nervous as a pregnant nun’. If something doesn’t go over well, he’d be like, ‘oh, that went over like a turd in a punch bowl’. He also had a lot of superstitions or tics I guess. He’d always get wine with ice in it – my mom’s family is 100% pure white trash. And so, he would order wine with ice in it, and then he would get it, stir it with his pinky, then suck on his finger, and wipe it on the left side of his shirt. Every single time. He’d like dry it off with the corner of his shirt. So all of his shirts had little things sticking off from him pulling on it to dry off his fingers. He’d stir his wine like it was a mixed drink or something.”

These weird little sayings always crack me up. They range from somewhat clever and somewhat useful to totally nonsensical and just plain silly. I especially love the strange ritual my friend’s grandpa performs every time he drinks a glass of wine. He seemed to do things just for the hell of it. What a way to live.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Proverbs

The Show Must Go On

Saying: “The show must go on”

Meaning: Regardless of what happens on or off stage, the show must continue.

Analysis: This saying in showbiz is a testament to the commitment it takes to put on a full performance. It also says a lot about the performer’s commitment to the audience. No matter what may befall the performers, within reason, the people who came to watch must be honored.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
general
Proverbs

One hundred steps

“Basically, yeah, one of our common sayings is that if you, you know, walk, like, a hundred steps after you eat your food, it helps you live longer.”

 

The informant is a 19 year old, undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, studying accounting. He was born and lived in Shanghai, China for most of his life. He spent his high school years at a boarding school in Connecticut, before coming to college in California. He still spends his summers back in China, where he likes writing music and working on potential future business projects.

 

The informant was asked if there were any common sayings that he heard in China. He had heard this saying from his family, often after meals.

 

The Chinese are renowned for their medicine practices. They are largely responsible for what many call “holistic medicine” today—acupressure, acupuncture, and herbal remedies. They are very interested in health and have many folklore remedies, as a result. This particular one, of walking a hundred steps after one eats, is just another of such remedies. Exercise is always a good thing, and walking after a meal can help circulate the blood in the body.

Why 100 steps? Well, 100 is an important number in Chinese culture. On a baby’s 100th day, there is a large celebration. A hundred is also ten times ten. Ten is a holy number, as it is the sum of the first four numbers (1+2+3+4), and people have 10 fingers and 10 toes. Ten would be too few of steps to walk, so the Chinese say 100  to maintain the holiness of the numerical symbolism, while still making it a practical way to maintain health.

It is interesting that the Chinese, with this saying, have people exercise after they eat. In America, there is the saying that you should wait to swim until an hour after you have eaten. This is thought to protect from cramps, and therefore drowning. The Chinese would likely disagree with this way of thinking.

Folk speech

Recipe for Success in Hollywood

There’s a saying in Los Angeles that if you’re an actor going in for a casting director, you’ll be successful if you are:

Happy, Pretty, Busy.

The source learned this saying from his girlfriend, who was a child star in several movies in the ’90s. Whenever she went on auditions, she was coached to always be Happy, Pretty, Busy; to be as desirable as possible.

It meaning is fairly straightforward, it is a guideline to making good impressions when meeting people in the film and TV industry.. You need to be happy, so people don’t think you’re a miserable person to work with, and to show you have a positive attitude. Pretty, because you need to be good looking or you wont get cast. Busy, you always need to be coming from something important, or going to something important immediately after a meeting; because people will want you more if they think other people really want you. Also if you make a person in the industry feel like meeting them is the most important thing you have to do that day, they wont take you as seriously.

Folk speech
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Texas Ranch Safety

“When I go to my, my dad’s ranch. In southwest Texas. It’s about 45 miles from the, from the border to Mexico. Um, and when I bring, uh, when I bring friends down there, to the ranch. He’s huge on safety. Because of rattlesnakes that are out there, and coyotes, and just other animals, and sharp plants that can, that’ll be, detrimental to your health. So he brings all my friends together, and he like, makes us be silent. And he goes, ‘Alright boys, I want you to know, that in all these 800 acres, anything out there can either bite ya, sting ya, prick ya, or even kill ya. And he basically scares all my friends before we, we go out.”

The speech the source’s father makes changes, except for the one saying that is always constant. “Alright boys, I want you to know…” Click here for an audio clip of that saying.

To me it’s important to note a piece of irony with this safety speech, because a big part of Texas ranch culture is shooting guns.

“He, he warns us about the plants and animals, and then we go, shooting animals with guns”.

 

As someone who lived in Texas for ten years, to me this really just reflects Texas culture, especially West Texas. It shows a profound respect for the environment, while at the same time maintaining the idea that Texans have a right to shoot everything in it.

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

Mexican Refranes (Proverbs)

Here is a series of Mexican proverbs that my informant told me she uses or hears every day as she told me verbatim:

“If you are with bad people, like when somebody tells you a refrán. That means something to make you think about the things you doing.”

“Dime con quién andas y dire quién eres.” (Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are)

“If you have bad company, if you have bad friends people can tell you hey you don’t do that because you have a bad friends but you say im not doing anything bad and then people say ‘Dime con quién andas’ ok? tell me who you’re with and I tell you who you are. ‘y dire quién eres’ people are going to think you are the same you have with bad people, but you are not bad. But people are going to think you are the same. ‘Dime con quién andas y dire quién eres.’ Tell me who you’re with and I’ll tell you who you are.”

“Quién con lobos anda, aullar aprende.” (Those who walk with wolves learn to howl)

“You are still with bad people and then you are not bad, you are a good girl but the other person are a bad person. No no bad only they are younger they… you are with a people but you are not bad and then we say ‘Quién con lobos anda, aullar aprende.’ Those who walk with wolves learn to howl. You learn to do the same.”

These two are similar in that they are about who you surround yourself with, in the second case, “wolves.” They’re about how you should be careful because we are easily influenced by others, and perceived in terms of people we choose to be with, even if you are good. Wolves are dangerous vicious animals that run in packs, so this is a warning not to get involved with bad people, who can turn you and make you “howl,” or be bad like them.

“Hacer bien, sin mirar a quién.” (Be good without looking at who)

“‘Hacer bien, sin mirar a quién.’ Be good no matter who are. Be good with a person no matter how a person is. That’s one we use more. Be good no matter. Be good without looking at who.”

This refran is about being good to everyone, no matter who they are, how they may seem. Treating others well is very important to my informant and she believes strongly that you shouldn’t judge others.

“Dime de que presumes y te diré de que careces.” (Tell me what you’re showing off and I’ll tell you what you lack)

“This is a nice one. You know especially we in Mexico, maybe you know people like this. People who, how how you use the word when you have friend and they said ‘Oh I have this Oh this cost me a lot money Oh this very expensive Oh mine’s is better oh blah blah blah.’ They always telling you they have the best or you know if I get if I have my dog oh yes I have dog and then I have a shoes oh I have a shoes or I have a new bed or some ‘I have this’ all the time I’m telling you what I have ok. They always telling you what they have. You know people like this. ‘Blah Blah blah.’ They are always trying to tell. And they they say ‘Dime de que presumes y te diré de que careces’ That means persons talk about they have they have when you realize what they have they have, really they don’t have nothing. That’s why. You telling me you have a lot a lot and maybe when I go to your house, you have nothing.”

Because my informant comes from very humble beginnings in León, Guanajuato, México, she can’t stand materialism and thinks that people who are obsessed with things and showing off are either fake, liars, or as the proverb suggests are lacking otherwise. This lack is likely a more metaphorical lack, like they have something perhaps emotionally or spiritually missing from their lives or are unhappy. This saying has probably become even more applicable since she moved to the United States, where image and things is a part of daily life and are even more in your face.

“No soy monedita de oro.” (I’m not a gold coin)

“If you have somebody… I don’t know if I say in the right way or no. Ok, you ah you like me, ah? Because if I say ‘I love you’ (Te quiero) that means I want you, and if I say you don’t want me, you don’t want me ah? This is when you have somebody and that person don’t like you and we say this most of the time, all of the time all the time because you know you find most of the persons they don’t like you. We answer ‘Oh good, I’m not gold coin.’ ‘No soy monedita de oro.’ If you are gold coin, everybody want you. If you are not gold, not everybody want you. Somebody can say ‘Oh I don’t like her,’ or somebody say ‘Well, I don’t like you.’ Well good, ‘No soy monedita de oro’ and everybody loves gold, so it’s good that they don’t all want you. Not everybody loves me. We use that every time, everyday, all situations. That’s the most popular in Mexico. ‘No soy monedita de oro.’”

I found this refran to be the most interesting because the connotation or the reason why she says it seems somewhat contradictory at first. I’m not a gold coin is considered a positive thing. It’s good that you aren’t gold because then everyone doesn’t like you, everyone doesn’t want you, love you. This tells me that self-esteem in Mexican culture has a different slant in that it truly comes from the self as opposed to from affirmation from others, and also in the sense that not being perfect is a good thing. This saying emphasizes uniqueness and the imperfection of humanity as good and safe. It’s not as important that everyone love you because not everyone is good and you shouldn’t want everyone to love you. That she ends telling me this particular refran, which she explains to be the most popular and commonly used one she knows from Mexico, it really highlights the motif that you need to be cautious with people. You don’t want everyone to like you. It’s almost a giant Freudian defense mechanism, because again, the other motif is that not all people are good, or good for you to be around, though you should treat everyone well (even if you don’t like them).

Customs
Folk speech

Old Farmer Expressions

My informant told me about two new expressions that I had never heard before: “scarcer than hensteeth” and “some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers.”  She says her father still uses these phrases to this day, but they derive from the early 1900s.  She has heard her father use them since she was really little, but her father said they were sayings his great-grandfather had said (my informant’s great-great grandfather) and it just “passed down the line.”  Surprisingly, her great-great grandfather who was from Nebraska didn’t own a chicken farm, but instead a corn farm that apparently had a lot of chickens.

As told by her grandfather and father, the first expression – “scarcer than hensteeth” – was a Great Depression metaphor.  She explained the meaning: “Obviously hen don’t have teeth, so if you have anything less than that you’re screwed.  For example, if a conversation was like… ‘How’s the money going?’  And you respond, ‘Scarcer than hensteeth,’ it basically means you don’t have shit.”  Oftentimes, she still uses the phrase “just to make a point.”  She also said that even though the phrase is just shy than a century years old, people still understand the point she tries to make.

The second expression – “Some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers” – deals with a gambling type of situation, which could most definitely be directed toward situations like with farming.  To take the phrase literally, it means that some days you go hungry, while other days you can have your fill.  She related this saying to: “sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.”  Recently, though, she had a conversation with her father about the expression and a new outlook was presented.  She said that she also noticed a more positive spin; that either day, it doesn’t matter if you got the chicken or the feathers, “you end up getting the filling for a pillow.”  In other words, you make use of what you wind up with in the end.

These expressions have been such a part of my informant’s upbringing that she tries to integrate them into everyday conversation whenever she can.  She is very in touch with her family history and in an effort to someday impart these historical familial idioms on to her children, she tries to maintain them in conversation.  These sayings may have just been popular during the time period of her great-great grandfather, but the fact that she, her father, grandfather and great-grandfather have continually used them through their lives illustrates a vocal transaction that can survive generations.  The fact that they have actively tried to preserve these expressions shows a type of folklore that can be limited to family.

Folk speech

Hungarian Expressions: How to Curse with Style

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “The problem with the Hungarian language is that you cannot learn it. It is something you are born with. I can never figure out, I speak it, but I can never figure out how it is put together. Like, for instance- oh this is going to sound bad. You are saying, ‘the wind is blowing’. Now you say, ‘blow the wind’, ok? The word blow is ‘fúj’. So it is ‘fúj a víz. The water is flowing.’ My mother used to say to me ‘fújd ki az orrod.’ Which means, ‘blow out your nose!’

My father used to say some other things that weren’t too nice. He would get a delivery- he was a handbag maker, he would get a delivery or material or something and he would open the package and say, ‘this is not what I ordered’. But he would get mad; he would say ‘akkor kapsz csapott az arcába!’ which means, ‘may you get slapped in the face!’ And the other one is when he really got mad he would say, ‘May hell eat it, or eat you! Pokol lehel megenni, vagy megenni!‘ Now there are others, but they really are not translatable.”

Analysis:

In my research I was not able to confirm if the two expressions are commonly used.  My informant’s father was known to have a bad temper, therefore it was of no surprise to me to hear that his father used to use profanity against the delivery man.  My informant teased that  the Hungarian language contains many swearing expressions, and a common joke is that in Hungarian you can swear for 5 minutes and not use the same word twice.  However, I do not think that the use of profanity in the Hungarian language is any different than the use of profanity in other languages in that there is a time and place for it’s usage.  I found that the expressions in my research were much more vulgar than the ones my informant told me, but as my informant later expressed to me he was not comfortable saying such vulgar things to a young lady.  Prior to this interview, I had never heard my informant use either phrase or speak Hungarian unless I asked him to.

My informant was born to Hungarian immigrants in 1928 Paris, France.  He later immigrated to California in 1947, having spent much of War World II in hiding due to his Jewish heritage.  He holds multiple citizenships in both the United States and France.  He now lives in Manhattan Beach, California with his wife and has three children and five grandchildren.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

French Idioms: It’s All About Food (Or Is It?)

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So French sayings… there are some sayings that I’ve told you before, one of them would be, ‘Ok the deal is done. You say, the carrots are cooked.’ The original version is “Les carrottes sont cuites.”

Interviewer: “And where did you first hear that?”

Informant: “Well, I was growing up.  Ok, now I am drinking out of a bottle. And this is the last drop, and I would say normally, ‘hey, the bottle is empty.’ But now I can say, ‘La fin des haricots’. ‘It’s the end of the beans!'”

Interviewer: “So ‘the end of the beans’ is a drinking saying?”

Informant: “No, it’s just something that you say. There is no more beans.  It’s kind of interchangeable with the other one that says the carrots are cooked. It’s done, it’s finished. It’s ready to eat in one case, and in the other case you have to go and get more.”

Analysis: 

An important aspect of French culture is French cuisine, and this love for food can even be seen in French expressions.  The first expression, “Les carrottes sont cuites” or in English “the carrots are cooked” is an idiom expressing that the event is over, or as my informant put it “the deal is done.”  This expression came from the idea that you would cook your carrots with your meat.  For this reason, the cooked carrots were associated with death. Therefore, “les carrottes sont cuites”  is a colloquial expression used ironically in a serious situation.  It means that something has gone disastrous, or that “it is all over”.  This expression can be used when the situation is very serious, but the person using the expression is trying to make light of the situation.  Such as a business deal that has gone bad.  I have also heard my informant use this expression humorously after we opened Christmas presents together.  He looked at all the discarded wrapping paper on the ground and exclaimed, “Les carrottes sont cuites!” 

The other expression mentioned, “la fin des haricots”, is interchangeable with the previous expression because both are referring to something that is over in a tragic way. This expression is fairly new in French language, as opposed to the pervious expression.  It refers to the idea that if you are eating the beans you are eating the last of your stored food. Thus, it’s all over!  I had never heard my informant use this expression perviously to the interview.

My informant was born to Hungarian immigrants in 1928 Paris, France.  He later immigrated to California in 1947, having spent much of War World II in hiding due to his Jewish heritage.  He holds multiple citizenships in both the United States and France.  He now lives in Manhattan Beach, California with his wife and has three children and five grandchildren.

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