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.


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.”


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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”


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 (

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The informant is my mother, who was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I asked her what proverbs she knew, and she shared with me this proverb her grandmother taught her.



  • ORIGINAL: የጠላቴ ጠላት ወዳጄ ነው
  • ROMANIZED: yet’elate t’elati, wodaje newi
  • Translation: the enemy of my enemy is my friend


“Yet’elate t’elati, wodaje newi. it means that the enemy of my enemy is actually that we have. That’s a proverb that we have. It means…so, you are my daughter, I love you. But just because you hate someone, I don’t hate that person. In fact, they can be my friend. That kind of shows you how open-minded the society is … just because you hate someone, I don’t hate them until I experience them myself.”


This proverb was fascinating to me, because the exact same expression exists in English, but has a completely different meaning. In English, this proverb is used to express that hating a common enemy can make two people friends, and that their friendship exists so they can both conspire against their common enemy. However, the Ethiopian interpretation of the proverb is much kinder; it reflects a community that is much more intolerant of hatred. This is possibly because while the English-speaking countries from which this proverb arose are much more cosmopolitan, Ethiopia is very community-minded, as its citizens live in more rural areas where they and their neighbors must help each other, share resources, and get along for the well-being of their towns.


Squirelly Tag

The informant is the sixteen-year-old sister of a friend of mine who lives in Rye, New York. She reminded me of a game we invented as kids and used to play whenever we were at each other’s houses.

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


OF: So. basically, it’s hide-and-seek, but also freeze tag, but it’s in the dark. With flashlights. So basically someone is it…well, first, you turn the lights out, and everyone has flashlights. And someone is it, and everyone else hides. And you can switch around hiding locations, as long as whoever’s it doesn’t catch you. So the person who is it has their flashlight on, and goes around looking for everyone else. And if they find you, you have to run. If they can tag you, you have to freeze, but if someone else who hasn’t been frozen yet comes and tags you, you’re allowed to unfreeze. And basically the game ends when whoever is it manages to freeze everyone else.”

A: Why does it have to be in the dark? What do you think that means?

OF: Nothing, I don’t think. It was more exciting. It’s, like, a thrill to be running around in the dark, which is stupid, I guess, because it was so much easier to trip over stuff. But we didn’t care.


I think it’s funny that kids “invent” games, but these games are almost always variants of other games they already know. It relates back to the idea that every text is a variation of another text that we discussed in class; because almost everything has already been created, we can only “create” versions of things that already exist. I also think children’s games that kids themselves create, and children’s lore itself, are interesting, because they have only really become as widespread as they are after the first child-labor laws. These laws effectively “invented” childhood, because before they were put in place, children didn’t have the time to sit around creating weird new games, nor could they socialize with the other kids with whom they would create such games.

Ethiopian bogeyman

The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about a character called Soyo, which is an Ethiopian bogeyman character used to scare children.


“So, Soyo is basically this character, like a scary kidnapper character, that parents use to scare their kids. It’s basically like the Ethiopian version of Slenderman…and kind of, also, like, “stranger danger” So, like, if you’re being bad, or misbehaving–like, when I was little, my mom used to make me come inside at night by being like, “oh, if you keep playing outside after it gets dark, Soyo is going to come get you.”


This bogeyman figure is an example of the concept of “ficts” as introduced by Von Sydow: these characters are fictional creatures that adults make up to scare children, or to teach them how to behave (examples include Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, but also bogeyman characters like this one). I thought that Soyo was an interesting example of children’s folklore in that it does not exist in the world of adult belief, but it is almost exclusively told by adults to their children rather than told between children; children would not have these characters if adults did not use them as lessons for their kids. The purpose that this particular character serves is to teach children not to trust strangers, but is also a convenient way for parents to scare their kids into obeying them. I also thought it was a cool reaffirmation of Dundes’s idea of “multiplicity and variation,” because every culture seems to have a bogeyman character (La Llorona in Mexico, for example, or, as my cousin mentioned, the more recent example of Slenderman).

Enkoye Totit–Ethiopian bedtime story

The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about Enkoye Totit, bedtime story her mother and aunts told her when she was little.


“So, Enkoye Totit is this little monkey character who keeps getting in trouble. It’s a bedtime story that parents tell their kids. It’s like, there’s not really one specific story I can think of about Enkoye Totit, but she’s a character that you can insert in any story. Totit means, like, little monkey. It’s like a diminutive of “tota,” which means monkey. That’s what parents call their kids. Like, it’s a nickname for kids when they’re being silly or misbehaving but not actually doing something that bad. Like if you keep annoying your mom, she’ll call you Tota.”


The fact that “monkey” is both a word referring to the animal and an term of affection for young children in Amharic is interesting, because it allows these stories to become self-insert stories for the children they are told to. Because Enkoye Totit is a stock character and not one from a specific story, it allows parents to plug this character, as an extension of their own children, into many different plots that will be vehicles for lessons they want to teach their kids. This is also reinforced by the characteristics of a monkey–small, mischievous, intelligent, inquisitive–most of which are also applicable to children. At the same time, because there are actual monkeys in Ethiopia, this fact might be less obvious to Ethiopian children, since the stories are based on a monkey that they could actually encounter, but because both my cousin and I were raised in the United States where monkeys do not live in nature, the metaphorical nature of these stories becomes more apparent.

Garlic and milk to cure a cold

The informant is my mother, who is originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she grew up with her eight sisters. When she was visiting from Washington, D.C. where we currently live, I asked her and my aunts how they used to cure colds when they lived in Ethiopia. She shared this interesting anecdote with me.

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


NG: When I was younger, some people used netch shinkourt ena whetet [garlic and milk].

A: woah, really? why? isn’t milk bad for you when you have a cold?

NG: I don’t know. Maybe, actually.

A: Did it ever actually work?

NG: [laughs] I don’t think so.

A: So why do you think people do it?

NG: I don’t know! It’s, you know, it’s nice to feel like you’re doing something to help. [laughs]


I thought this was a funny example of the fact that some beliefs are unfounded, but are performed simply because they are tradition, or because the belief that the remedy will work is enough for those who perform it. Science has actually proven that there is no actual way to cure a cold, which means that in this way, every cold remedy will work, because the cold will go away by itself in a few days and you can attribute this to whatever remedy you used. I also thought it related to the fact that we like to feel some amount of control when we’re in a situation in which nothing can be done, because although we know there is no way to cure a cold, we all have cold remedies and things we do to try and “cure” ourselves.