Author Archives: Francesca Wadsworth

It’s easier to shear a sheep than raise a lamb to sheep-hood

Text: It’s easier to shear a sheep than raise a lamb to sheep-hood

Minor Genre: Proverb

Context: AH is a junior at USC. He is from Santa Monica, California, and is well-known for his creativity: he has his own religion for which he has created an entire alphabet. He told me this new proverb that he had come up with himself while writing an essay. He told me, “It’s about writing essays, but it could be about editing a film, it could be about a lot of things that you’re creating…” He told me that the process of creation is much easier if you begin by creating a lot, because after that it’s just about “shear[ing] it off and collect[ing] the wool and mak[ing] something out of it.’” He recounted his new saying to a friend who now uses it often. This friend then told it to her screenwriting professor who has apparently since used it while teaching his students.  

Analysis: AH did not clearly delineate which type of speech his saying was, but I assert that this is a proverb. It gives advice, it is metaphorical and short, and though AH is young, his soul is old and wise. While there is so much to be learned from old proverbs whose origins are now indefinite, it is also important to understand how pieces of folklore are created in the first place. For many proverbs, one might assume that the literal situation which creates metaphorical meaning was probably experienced by the person who first spoke the proverb. However, I know that AH did not grow up shearing sheep nor raising lambs, and thus it makes me consider how self-reflexive folk speech can be. He is someone who values old sayings and has a wealth of them memorized, and so it is more the inspiration of other proverbs rather than lived experience that seems to have brought him to create his own. It is wonderful to see how this proverb has already begun to spread throughout the USC community, and it will be interesting to see if it catches on elsewhere.

The Shrimp Fork

Text: The Shrimp Fork

Minor Genre: nickname (toponym)

Context: My informant, JW, is a 57 year old man from Buffalo, New York, who now lives in San Francisco. The Shrimp Fork is a nickname for Sutro Tower, a radio and television tower in San Francisco that is also a tourist attraction because of its unique design and placement atop a large, hikeable hill. It is called such because of the similarity between the shape of a fork specifically made to eat shrimp with and the three-pronged top of the tower that is featured prominently in the city’s skyline. JW told me that he learned this nickname for the structure about 15 years ago, from his fiancee at the time. He claims that she invented the term herself, but that the two of them together have made it a known term amongst their social circles and beyond. His children and their friends have also spread the term. 

Analysis: The tendency to rename functional objects to be more recognizable and perhaps humorous is very endearing, as it seems so human to desire familiarity. Sutro Tower may be a perfectly good name for this interesting structure, but it is wonderfully and playfully human for a small cohort of people to give it a name that resembles something from their own lives. This nickname certainly pertains to a place-specific folk group, as it is unlikely that anybody who does not reside in San Francisco would know this term. However, there are other structures throughout the world that have both colloquial and official names. It is important to maintain the knowledge of these nicknames, as such terms offer knowledge about the culture in which these structures exist – comparing the documented title and the toponym gives us insight into what a government or city might deem important and how that differs from how the citizens of a place see and understand their surroundings. 

Bathroom Light Prank

Text: From “around the ages 6 to 9,” BD and her friends would pull a prank in which they would go into the girls’ bathroom at school and, while people were in the stalls, turn off all the lights and run away. 

Minor Genre: Prank / Practical Joke

Context: BD is a 21 year old student at USC from Santa Monica, California. She told me that she thinks this prank is “pretty classic,” in that a lot of girls her age did this both at her school and at other schools. She said that everyone, including her, would always scream when the lights would go out like that. She remembers the feeling very well, and says that the prank still follows her through life. Even though she doesn’t scream out loud anymore, she told me that she feels the same sense of initial fear that tied into the general childhood fear of darkness, mirrors, and all the things that children do in bathrooms to scare one another. 

Analysis: I agree with BD that this is a common prank. It is interesting to analyze why so many children across cities, states, and even nations share this urge to engage in fearful activities in the bathroom. I think that part of allure of practical jokes is the aspect of mischief which, especially for children learning the thrill of being naughty, adds to the humorous outcome. Many trains of thought assert that humor comes from incongruity, and this definitely applies to this situation. While kids are being taught how to behave and to be entities in the world, the incongruity of mischief is exactly the type of exciting humor that brings them joy. Pulling any prank is mischievous, but pulling a prank in the bathroom – a space that is newly meant to be taboo because of its shared nature in schools – adds to that feeling exponentially. 

Rattlin’ Bog

Text: SW explained his favorite drinking game, “Rattlin’ Bog” to me: A group of people gather in a circle, sitting around a table. Each person has a drink in their hand (and usually one or two more in case they finish their first one) and the song “The Rattlin’ Bog” is played, most commonly through a speaker connected to someone’s phone. This song has a chorus that repeats in between verses, and each successive verse adds another line to the last one, so that the verses get continuously longer as the song progresses. One member of the group drinks for the entire length of a verse, then after the chorus, the person sitting beside them in the circle drinks for the next verse, and this continues in a clockwise direction around the circle until the song’s completion. Thus, as the verses get continuously longer and build upon themselves, the successive people in the circle drink for longer. SW claimed that, by the last verse, it becomes a relatively difficult task. 

Minor Genre: Game

Context: SW is a 25 year old man who graduated from USC in 2021 and now lives in New York City. He told me that he first played this game when he was a senior at USC, and that he learned it from a friend who had known about the game for quite some time. This friend had told SW that the game supposedly originated in America, but that the song Rattlin’ Bog was a traditional Irish tune. 

Analysis: After hearing this, I thought of another drinking game called Thunder. The premise of Thunder is almost the same as Rattlin’ Bog, but it is set to the song Thunderstruck by AC/DC. Thunderstruck was released in 1990, while The Rattlin’ Bog is a traditional Irish folk song, in the Roud Folk Song Index as number 129. Thus, I wonder which game originated first, where each game originated, and finally, why SW’s friend postulates that Rattlin’ Bog the game was first invented in America – how could this be, and furthermore how could he know this? How one culture borrows from another and creates a new folk game out of an old folk song is fascinating. Generally speaking, this made me think of how drinking games tend to create their own cultures in the act of gathering, drinking, and playing a game with other people. Though there are two different national cultures supposedly concerned here (American and Irish), any drinking game also creates its own new folk group every time it is played, just with the people present. There are certainly variations between individual games (SW said that some people bang their fists on the table during the chorus, others clap for the drinker during the verses), and these small variations create folk groups of people who now play this specific way.