Author Archives: fijman

Proverb: A Gift Horse

Text: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Context: G is a 20 years old Animation and Digital Arts major from Birmingham, UK. He is a junior at USC and has been living in the area for 3 years.

This text is one of a few proverbs G could remember, but he believes he first heard this proverb when he was given a hand-me-down article of clothing and was “being ungrateful” about it. He remembers an older family member, likely a grandparent, telling him this.

Interpretation: After being provided with this text by my informant, I asked my roommate (a self-proclaimed ex-equestrian), if they knew anything about the proverb, as it’s quite popular. They confirmed that looking a horse in its mouth isn’t just a silly part of the saying. You can tell a horse’s age and other facts about its health quality by its teeth. The proverb is saying that, if you receive a horse as a gift, you shouldn’t check its mouth for its age or how its cared for – if you are given something as a gift, you shouldn’t try to find fault in it. I find it particularly interested that this is something my informant initially heard when he was younger, in childhood. He specifically remembered it being a hand-me-down, which is worth discussing because he found fault with something used. As a child, he wasn’t initially grateful for something because it was technically a gift, but he also didn’t know that society would expect him to see the used clothing as a gift. An older family member being the one to tell him this proverb is fitting with what we know about proverbs; it’s a piece of advice coming from someone with more life experience. It also speaks to the fact that society teaches humility and gratitude as a kind of obligation to children – as something not instinctual that dictates how we all should behave.

Proverb: Blood and Water

Text: “Blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

Context: G is a 20 years old Animation and Digital Arts major from Birmingham, UK. He is a junior at USC and has been living in the area for 3 years.

G said he initially heard the more popular version of this saying – “Blood is thicker than water” – at some point when he was younger. He says that he believes it was one of his teachers that later told him the actual proverb, the one listed above in text.

Interpretation: What’s interesting is that G chose to tell me the longer version of this proverb, but acknowledged the shorter version. This more popular version is used as an argument for familial bonds being stronger than others, while the version in text argues that relationships we form are stronger. While this may or may not be actually true, G believes the version he told me is the original, and that people are misquoting it in the shorter, ‘newer’ version. The key words “covenant” and “womb” are left out. This proverb which I’ve quoted from G is pretty straightforward, although metaphorical, saying that the bonds we choose to form and strengthen (covenant meaning agreement or trust) are stronger than those we cannot chose (those created solely by the womb). It’s definitely a type of advice, seemingly coming from someone experienced in life. What’s more, familial bonds being questioned is taboo in a number of cultures and societies, which seems to be why there are two different versions of this proverb circulating. It also speaks to the fact that my informant, who is a student at a college on an entirely different continent from his hometown (and his family), knows and references the version of the proverb that values formed relationships over inherited ones.

Proverb about Wasting Time

Text: “Don’t watch the mule go blind, load the wagon.”

Context: K is a 21 year old junior at USC. He is from Palmdale, CA and is majoring in Computer Science.

He says he’s never really used this proverb, but that it came to mind when asked if he knew any. He also noted that he remembered it because he found it funny.

This is one his grandpa used to say, and he warned me before telling me that it “wasn’t very cultural” – he seemed to expect that it should be because it came from his grandpa.

Interpretation: When asked what he thought the proverb meant, K simply said “stop wasting time doing stupid things,” to “just do the work.” The implication of the proverb is that you would rather sit and watch a mule go blind rather than do necessary work. Upon further thought, the proverb seems to also mean that you shouldn’t worry about things you cannot control when preparing for something, to just do what you can. It’s also relevant that this proverb was told to him by his grandfather, as it falls into the apparent trend that proverbs are for older people. This one in particular seems like a kind of warning from someone further in life to someone who still has a lot of time – to not waste that time on things that are either meaningless or out of our control and to instead focus on the task at hand.

Joke: A Man Believes his Wife is Going Deaf

Text: “There’s a man that thinks that his wife is going deaf, so he comes up with a plan so that every day, when he comes back from work, he’s gonna stand at the door and ask ‘Honey, what’s for dinner?’ And every time [the wife] doesn’t answer, he’s gonna take a step toward the kitchen, where she’s making dinner. So the man gets home from work and he goes ‘Honey, what’s for dinner?’ and he gets no answer, so he takes a step forward. And then he asks again, he goes ‘Honey what’s for dinner?’ and still no answer, so he takes another step forward. And he continues this until he’s right behind her and he asks again ‘Honey, what’s for dinner?’ and then she says ‘For the last time, I told you we’re having spaghetti!’”

Conext: This informant, A, is a 20 year old artist and a USC junior majoring in Interactive Media and Game Design. They moved around as a child, but have family in Los Angeles and attended high school in the area.

A believes they heard this joke from one of their grandparents, most likely their grandpa, and says that they know it’s funny because, “the first time [they] told [this joke] to [their mom], she was driving and started swerving because she was laughing so hard.”

A usually uses this joke when someone asks if they have any good jokes. They mentioned that “it’s pretty long,” so they’ll “always add it.”

Interpretation: There are a couple of ways this joke’s punchline could be interpreted, actually. The punchline seems to be most easily interpreted as the husband, rather than the wife, being the one who is going deaf. This is a joke which might land differently according to the person hearing it, because one might also interpret the punchline as a gendered/heteronormative stereotype of a wife who is always saying something along the lines of “I told you so!” to her husband. Both interpretations track with what we know about jokes in folklore. I would associate the first version with the idea of humor as a relief; of letting go of something the person telling it may have been repressing. In this case – nervousness about growing older. People are often anxious about growing older and potentially losing things like hearing, so they tell jokes about it instead. I find it particularly interesting that the informant was told this joke by someone older (a grandparent). The second interpretation of the joke is also pretty typical of popular humor, a gendered stereotype which places the wife in the kitchen, the husband at work, and the wife being somewhat snappy/bossy with the husband.

Childhood Rebus/Drawing Game: A Story that Makes a Puppy

Text/Transcript: While drawing out the featured image, the informant said this: “There once was a man with no arms. And then he was attacked by bees. And so, to escape the bees, he jumped into a pond. But he had so many stings that he didn’t know what to do, so he ran to the police department, but they didn’t help him, because they can’t help with bee stings. And then he went to the fire department, but they couldn’t help him, cause they don’t help with bee stings. And so they told him to go to the hospital, so he ran all the way across town to the hospital and they put two little bandaids on his bee stings. And then you have a puppy.”

Context: G is a 20 year old USC junior majoring in theater. They are from North Carolina and have been living in Los Angeles for three years. 

G remembers this rebus of sorts from childhood. It’s a simple visual story told while drawing. The ‘puzzle’ begins with an armless stick figure (the nose and mouth), then adding dots as the bee stings (whiskers), the circle as the pond (face), more circles as the police + fire departments (the eyes), a large circle as the hospital (the head), and finally ovals on the sides as the bandaids (the ears). G notes that she is not sure the ears were originally bandaids, and that she improvised that bit. They also added the body for fun – it’s not part of the original rebus.

G remembers being taught this by a classmate at some point in grade school.

Interpretation: Amusement is valued and simplistic in grade school. I think of this folk drawing as something children will do to entertain themselves; to make each other laugh. This pseudo-rebus, in particular, is reminiscent of an elementary school experience either lacking technology or with minimal technology. In the early 2010s, when my informant was in grade school, technology had not entirely taken over learning spaces. It’s especially fitting that this was drawn on the back of her release form, as she mentioned remembering drawing it on the back of worksheets. This is a kind of folk drawing/speech that requires children to be a little clever and, although it looks different depending on the person drawing it, it is intended to look like a dog and is amusing to young children because of that. It’s purpose seems to be both amusement and relationship-building, as it’s something passed to a classmate (presumably a friend) to share in that amusement. There isn’t any intended cruelty to the receiving end of the puzzle, it’s something to enjoy together.