Author Archives: Amelia Getahun

Carsickness Remedy

The informant (ST), a 19 year-old friend attending USC, is of Korean descent on her mother’s side, and grew up in Sacramento, California. She revealed to me an interesting home remedy of her mother’s while discussing alternative medicine and acupuncture over lunch.

Note: The initials ST denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

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ST: “Korean medicine is so weird. I used to get carsick when I was little, and my mom used to make me drink this, like, black … dirt liquid. [laughs] I don’t know.”

A: “Dirt? Like, from the ground?”

ST: “Well, she didn’t like, scoop it up … [laughs]. She bought it at this, like, medicine place, but … it was dirt!”

A: “Real dirt? Like soil? Mixed with what?”

ST: “[Laughs]. Yeah! Water. Hot water.”

A: “Did it taste like anything?”

ST: “It tasted awful! Because it was dirt!”

A: “[Laughs]. But did it work?”

ST: “I don’t know. I never felt carsick after. I don’t know if I was, like, distracted by how bad it tasted [laughs], or if it was, like, placebo or something. But I never felt carsick afterwards.”

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I found this remedy immensely interesting because it flew in the face of what I accepted to be true about medicine; incorporating dirt and the uncleanliness it connotes into healing seemed counterintuitive to me. However, as I did some research, I found many scientific studies that supported the idea of “eating dirt”–more specifically, of ingesting the beneficial soil-based organisms present in dirt, which our current obsession with sterility in our food and homes has left us lacking, leading to weaker immune systems. The most fascinating part of this story to me, however, was that the remedy worked despite my friend’s doubts about its actual effectiveness as medicine. Growing up, my parents would try to cure me and my sister of our carsickness by playing road games with us (e.g. I Spy, etc.), and although they never gave us any actual medicine, the distraction they provided from our carsickness made it more bearable. I would be interested in doing more research to know if this “dirt liquid” can actually provide relief from carsickness or if it is, as my friend suspects, simply a diversion tactic.

 

Viola Jokes

The informant is a 20-year-old friend from Westport, Connecticut, who plays the violin. He told me about viola jokes, which are silly, baseless jokes that strings players make about violists. He learned these from hearing other people in his orchestra, including his conductor, make these jokes. I asked him for an example of one of these jokes.

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“How do you stop a violin from being stolen? You store it in a viola case.”

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The concept of viola jokes was amusing to me, because they don’t seem to actually be based on anything true about viola players, but they are so widespread that they even have their own Wikipedia page. Based on my own knowledge of string instruments, violas do seem to be the odd ones out, as they use their own clef, the alto clef, which is not used by any other instrument in a classical orchestra. However, there is nothing about violas that actually suggests their inferiority as compared to other instruments, so these jokes seem to be an example of an invented other-ness that knits the rest of the group together in their identity as strings players. Without context, the jokes would seem offensive to viola players, but those who understand the jokes know that it is actually a fake out-group identity that would tie them closer to the group; in other words, knowing that the jokes are not actually making fun of violists allows the violists being made fun of, and others who understand the joke, to participate in string-instrument or orchestral culture.

For more viola jokes, see The Grand Encyclopedia of Viola Jokes by David Johnstone, found online at https://web.archive.org/web/20140824203638/http://www.j-music.es/FileUpload/articulos/gen026-Gran_Encyclopedia_viola_jokes-j-m.pdf.

 

The Winchester Mystery House

The informant is middle-aged family friend who grew up in New Jersey. He heard this legend while in medical school in the Bay Area.

Note: The initials DW denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

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A: Okay. So what is the Winchester Mystery House?

DW: Yes. So the Winchester Mystery House is this ginormous, sprawling mansion somewhere in the Bay Area. I think it’s in San Jose. Um, so Winchester is actually the family that made Winchester guns, made an enormous fortune manufacturing firearms. Um, and so, I believe it was … the or one of the heiresses to this fortune, I think back in the late 1800s or early 1900s? I think she was involved in mediums, and seances, which was really en vogue all across English-speaking world back then. She became convinced that there were evil forces that were out to kill her, and the only way to prevent that from happening is to continually keep building her house, to never have construction stop. Twenty-four hours a day.

A: [laughs] Huh. That’s interesting. Why would that keep them away?

DW: I have no idea. That was, like, her delusion. I guess we would call it a delusion. Who knows? Maybe it was real. But she did end up dying eventually.

A: Oh! Of… supernatural causes?

DW:  [laughs] I don’t think so. Unlikely. I don’t know of what. Not killed by demonic forces.

A: [laughs] Okay.

DW: So, this huge house is… it’s like a… you can visit as a tourist today. It’s huge! And lots of rooms. But what she started doing also is just building, like, hallways that stop at nothing, staircases that go nowhere, doors that open to nowhere. Just building for building’s sake without any purpose or function.

A: How big did the house end up being?

D: I don’t know, like, in square feet, but really big.

A: Where do you think the lady got that idea?

D: I don’t know… It kind of reminds me of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obviously, the spirits were her obsession, and then her compulsion was to keep building the house.

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The thing I found interesting is the fact that the legend centers around the widow’s motives for building the house rather than the house itself. The house exists, and the fact that there was so much construction is true (though I could not verify that it was actually twenty-four hours a day). But when I did further research on the house, I found that no one actually knows why the widow undertook so many bizarre renovations. I think that the fact that a legend arose from this is an interesting demonstration of the human need to rationalize the things we don’t understand–for example, when we hear phonemes (or single-syllable sounds) in another language that we don’t recognize because they don’t exist in our language, our brains interpret them as the closest phoneme in our own language. Because there is no reasonable explanation for why someone would do something so bizarre, it makes sense that a legend would arise suggesting that the house was haunted, or that spirits or psychics instructed her to keep building the home. To me, it was an example of how folklore can arise to meet our needs or to explain things to us.

The Jersey Devil

The informant is middle-aged family friend who grew up in New Jersey. I asked him about local legends, and he told me about the legend of the Jersey Devil, which he heard as a child.

Note: The initials DW denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

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DW: So, I grew up in South Jersey, outside of Philadelphia, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River.

A: Okay.

DW: And, so, one of the local folklore…folk tales [sic] was about the Jersey Devil. You have to know also that the geography of South Jersey, you know, it’s very urban towards the Delaware River and Philadelphia, but then there’s this huge area that goes to the ocean from the middle of Jersey called the Pine Barrens. So these are like pine forests, and these pine forests are based in really sandy soil, so it’s, like, a unique ecosystem, and it’s protected, I think it’s, like, federal park lands, or state park lands. But the Jersey Devil is supposed to be the devil that hangs out in the Pine Barrens and goes around terrorizing people.

A: He’s the devil? Like, the Biblical devil?

DW: Yeah, like the Biblical devil, yeah, described as, like, a cloven-hoofed, bipedal figure. I don’t know if he’s supposed to have horns. So this tale became, like, really fever-pitched, I believe it was, like, in the teens or the 20s, there were these pictures taken after a snowstorm of some sort of cloven creature on two legs–

A: 20s? Like, the 1920s?

DW: Yeah. That had walked and made, like, prints in the snow, gone over roofs of houses …

A: Really?

DW: Yeah. It garnered a lot of attention and sort of reinforced this idea that the devil was hanging out in South Jersey. [laughs]

A: [laughs] That’s cool.

DW: Yeah, it’s cool! Except for when I was, like, in tenth or eleventh grade as a whole class we did like a four or five-day canoeing/camping thing in the Pine Barrens, which was really awesome…but really scary. [laughs]

A: How often did you hear about this when you were a kid? When do you hear it for the first time?

DW: I think a lot, actually. But, you know, I think it was like fourth or fifth grade, the whole year we did was, like, on New Jersey. So I think even at that early age we had talked about the Jersey Devil at school.

A: Do you think the photos were manipulated? Did they know how to do that back then?

DW: Probably. But, I mean, I think the story goes back before then. And I think there are probably, like, stories all over … even the colonies, like, the American colonies, about the devil manifesting.

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The informant noted that this legend was likely not specific to only his state, which I found compelling, because although versions of this story might exist in other states, it is still told–and taught!–within his state as a piece of New Jersey folklore. The fact that this was taught in elementary school as part of a larger unit on the state suggests that this legend is a way for people growing up in New Jersey to feel a sense of community and pride in their identity as New Jerseyans. I also looked up the Pine Barrens, the area in which this legend is set, and found that in the 1700s and 1800s, the people who lived there were basically the outcasts of society: the poor, criminals, fugitives, deserting soldiers, runaway slaves, etc. As a bad part of town, it makes sense that this is the place that the devil would choose to manifest. Perhaps the legend was used as a story to scare people away from the Pine Barrens.

Napoleon Rhyme

INFORMANT: The informant is my fifteen-year-old sister, who lives in Washington, D.C. We both attended a french-language school until 2014, and this is one of the songs we used to sing as children.

CONTEXT: The informant heard this rhyme from one of her friends in the fourth grade when they started covering Napoleon in their class curriculum. According to her, this is a common rhyme taught to kids by other kids.

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MAIN PIECE:

Original: “Napoléon est mort à Sainte-Hélène/Son fils Léon lui a crevé l’bidon/On l’a retrouvé assis sur une baleine/En train d’sucer des arêtes de poisson”

Translation: “Napoleon died at Sainte-Helene/His son Leon gutted his belly [informal]/They found him sitting on a whale/Sucking on fish bones”

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I think this rhyme is a really interesting example of children’s lore. In general, kids seem to have the instinct to rebel against authority, and this often takes the form of mocking authority figures. In French classrooms, Napoleon is presented to children as somewhat of a legendary figure, so it would make sense that kids would create rhymes about Napoleon, given how venerated he is in French history. As someone who is seen as kind of a silly historical figure outside of France, Napoleon is also a fairly easy target for mockery (he inspired the term “Napoleon Complex,” used to describe people who try to compensate for their short height with overconfidence and ego). I think it also is interesting to observe the difference between what kids’ games and rhymes they learn from adults and what they teach each other; nursery rhymes and tales told and taught to children by adults tend to be more tame, while the things children pass down to other children usually to contain counter-hegemonic themes and seem to be more risqué or vulgar. This is somewhat reflected in the grammar of the rhyme as well. Grammar is an extremely important part of the French curriculum, and is constantly emphasized throughout both primary and secondary school. The use of contractions in the rhyme is another way that it is rebellious.

For another version of this rhyme, see “Napoleon” from Momes.net (http://www.momes.net/Comptines/Comptines-pour-rire/Napoleon)