My informant is a freelance editor and translator living in Taiwan. She was born in Taiwan and has lived there essentially her whole life, except for a few years in America. I asked her specifically about this proverb that I’d heard my grandma tell me when I was young as I’d never really understood it, and she told me the origin of the proverb and how it became the version that I heard as a child.
“‘Having a crow’s mouth.’ Because we Chinese believe—no, not believe, Chinese always claim that crows are bad luck. The story’s very simple. It’s just…we feel the crow—because it’s black, so it’s bad luck. So when it—and other people say…uh…most of the time, it’s just that we believe, it may go against biology, but we believe that most of the time, crows don’t speak. That they don’t go, ‘Wah, wah, wah, wah.’ So when they do speak, it’s that bad things are about to happen. That it’s kind of like…a…prophet, can predict, can tell you that bad luck or bad things are coming. So, so, when they speak, they just…they tell you that you will have misfortune—not necessarily you, not you specifically, just somewhere around there or Taiwan or something. Just that there’ll be misfortune.
So then people started saying ‘having a crow’s mouth,’ became like ‘you’re acting like…a crow.’ That is to say, what you say, after you say this thing, it’ll actually happen. So they’ll say you have ‘a crow’s mouth.’ But if…if a person says something and then it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t count as ‘crow’s mouth.’
Collector: “But you…you—when you say someone has the ‘mouth of a crow,’ you don’t know yet if the thing will happen. Just, as soon as they say, ‘Oh, this bad thing might happen,’ then you need to say, ‘CROW’S MOUTH.’
Collector: So you haven’t even checked, to see if it’s really happened.
‘Yes. And, when it—when it first started, ‘crow’s mouth,’ this term was…was…changed—it was that the thing the person said, if it really happened, then we would berate him, saying, “It was you having a crow’s mouth.” That is, for instance, uh, we at NTCH [informant’s work place], each of us wishes…wishes that our boss won’t, won’t do a certain thing. And then a person then, then says, ‘Oh!’—never mind, if we, let me give an example, for instance, we have our first day off, we just had, let me see, Memorial Day. And the day before we get Memorial Day off, someone says, ‘Let’s hope that…after the holiday ends, the first day we come back to work, we don’t get called to a…kind of…meeting…that starts at 8 in the morning and lasts till 7 in the evening kind of meeting.’ I’ve heard that the person who likes our English writings, that boss has that kind of meeting a lot. And then…and then—because everyone thought he was just kidding, ‘No, no, no, that won’t happen,’ and then, yeah, the first day back at work, it actually happens that there’s a meeting from 8 in the morning, as soon as you get to the office, you get called to the meeting, lasting until the afternoon, 7 o’clock, getting home at 7 pm. And then people will yell at the person who said it, ‘You have a crow’s mouth.’ However, if it was this person, it happens that every thing he says like that always has this kind of effect, that is, whenever he says something, it always has this effect, for instance, he eats lunch, that one, that one, at that place that [a coworker of hers] took you to eat once, and then, the dish that they like to eat, they say, ‘I hope they’ll have that dish today,’ and then that person says again, ‘They won’t have that dish today because it’s that…um…that—lately that dish has been going up in price. They definitely won’t use that dish.’ And then when they go, they really don’t have that dish, they’ll say, ‘You had a crow’s mouth!’ And then…um…in the future, when he talks, people will say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth,’ to stop him first. So when he’s prepared to—before he, um, starts to talk, you have to say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth.’ But then, that is, nowadays, um—actually, Taiwanese people are becoming more and more superstitious. Because we’re having more and more bad luck. Don’t we say a lot that we are a bad luck family? The whole country, it has more and more of a workload, things like that. Less and less money. Then everyone starts to become really nervous, whenever someone starts to say something, they say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth!’ Meaning in case, meaning if you say it, then it’ll become a bad thing. So, this phrase became a sort of ‘stop someone from becoming’—it’s superstitious, in case what they say becomes a thing that, um, comes true.”
The meaning behind the proverb and how it became a preemptive warning instead of a way to blame someone after a misfortune is pretty clear in the transcript. I do agree with her that this change from a comment or exclamation after the fact to a warning (and the time I remember hearing my grandmother tell me the proverb, she did sound pretty horrified and frantic) does reflect a change in the culture of Taiwan. I don’t believe necessarily that it is due directly to a sort of economic crisis or “bad luck” for the whole island, but it does seem to at least reflect a change in behavior from a more relaxed one where such prophecies were not welcome but tolerated, to one that actively tries to prevent these prophecies from ever being made in the first place.