Author Archives: Tamsen Cronin

German Proverb — Can’t see the Forest

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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.

Context

            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.

Interpretation

            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

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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.

Step on a crack, break you mother’s back!

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The following information was collected from a seven-year-old Caucasian girl from South Haven, MI. The girl will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant”, and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “It’s..umm.. ‘Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”

Collector: “What does it mean?”

Informant: “Um… On the sidewalk. If you step on the lines, your mom’s back is supposed to break.”

Collector: “Have you ever stepped on the line?”

Informant: “Yeah. But she didn’t break her back.”

Context

            The Informant informed me of this saying when we were discussing games she and her friends and siblings played on the way to school. This piece was the first game that she thought of. The informant learned the saying and subsequent game from one of her older siblings. She remembered they yelled at her once when they started playing and the Informant got scared that she had actually hurt her mother. But now she knows that it doesn’t actually hurt them right away, it’s just bad luck and could lead to her mother breaking her back.

Interpretation

            I believe, like my informant, that this little saying/game is just that: a game. But upon looking closer, I believe more meaning can be derived from the intention behind the game. The notion that the simple act of stepping on a crack on the sidewalk could potentially cause your mother to break her back makes me think mostly of implanting the idea of responsibility. I believe the game/saying brings forward the idea that children have to take responsibility for their actions. Meaning, if you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. The idea behind this is that if you do something that indirectly causes another event, you are responsible for that outcome, whatever it may be.

 

For another version of this game, please see p. 94 of Eliot Oring’s (1986) edition of Folk Group and Folklore Genres: An Introduction in Jay Mechling’s chapter on “Children’s Folklore” ((Utah State University Press)).

 

Bronner, Simon J., et al. Folk Groups And Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Edited by Elliott Oring, University Press of Colorado, 1986.

The Legend of Turtle Rock

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The following piece was collected from an eighty-four year old woman who lives in Cascade, Colorado. She will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “There’s a rock on the drive up the mountain pass called Turtle Rock. Every time you go up that road, we all wait silently in the car looking for the rock. It’s a larger rock with a smaller rock behind it and slightly to the side. What happens is that as you drive by, it looks like a turtle poking his head out of his shell. As soon as you see it, you have to yell and jump around. It’s good luck if you can spot it because it’s really hard to see, especially if you’re driving quickly. All the locals know it’s there. It used to be a game to see if someone could make the steep climb up to the rock. In all my time I only ever saw one person do it.”

 

Context

            The Informant learned of this place and the tradition wrapped around it simply by living in the area and hearing from other people all about “Turtle Rock”. She believes that she has known about the rock that looks like a turtle phenomenon for as long as she can remember. She believes it is just a funny rock formation but it never fails to make her laugh.

Interpretation

            I love the stories that spin meaning from natural occurrences. Like the idea that a certain rock formation can have a meaning that everyone who lives in the area surrounding the rock knows. I believe it’s a way to identify yourself – if you are from Cascade, Colorado, then you must know about Turtle Rock. And if you don’t, then are you really a Cascade native? Furthermore, having an identity that is interwoven with the land around always seems like the most solid identity a person can have.

Rubor, Dolor, and Calor — Signs of Infection

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The following piece was collected from a seventy-three year-old woman from Vail, Colorado. She will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant” and I the “Collector”.

Informant: My mother had a very specific way of checking her children for infections. She would always say to us: Rubor, dolor, and calor. Signs of inflammation.”

Collector: “What do they mean?”

Informant: “They translate to mean redness, pain, and heat. Basically you would check a cut or some injury to see if it was was, if it was giving off heat, and if it was tender. If it did, you would know it was infected.”

Context

            The Informant learned this phrase from her Irish mother, she claims it is just something her mother always said to the children. The Informant believes it to be a simple procedure of people to check for infection and inflammation for people who are not well equipped to handle any ailments. She remembers it because of the frequency of which her mother would mutter it when looking over the Informant’s injuries when she was young.

Interpretation

I loved this new piece. I had never heard of this before, but I was familiar enough with the signs of infection. I was intrigued so I looked up the origin of the phrase. The original definition of inflammation, set forward by Roman encyclopedist Celus in the 1st century A.D. The original definition also included the fourth sign, tumor, meaning swelling. I found it interesting that even though the signs are taken as canon for inflammation, when they are repeated, they are still said in their original Latin. Keeping the phrase in Latin might preserve its credibility in the eyes of some, everything sounds more official when said in Latin.