Author Archives: johnscheffler

To Get Within a Gnat’s Eyelash [of something]

My informant works part-time for a small-sized consulting firm, and takes a lot of readings and data measurements as part of his job.  He hears this metaphor frequently when being assigned to do these readings, especially when he wants the data to be as accurate as possible.  He also uses this metaphor when critiquing the work of interns.  For the success of the consulting firm, it is important that data is read as accurately and precisely as possible.  My informant explained that if two consulting firms are competing for a contract, and one company’s readings are taken in tenth of units, and the second company’s readings are taken in hundredths of units, the second company will likely get the contract because of their attention to accuracy.

Although he’s heard and used the metaphor many times, my informant cannot remember where he first heard it.  He interprets the metaphor to be used as an indication of something of very small size, and that this logical reasoning is likely what has popularized this metaphor.  If a gnat is small and an eyelash is small, then a gnat’s eyelash must be very tiny.  He also knows he has heard the phrase used in two ways: 1) with ‘within’ to indicate a small margin of error, and 2) with ‘as small as’ to describe how miniature something appears.

I have also heard this metaphor with respect to taking and recording data, and I believe it’s commonly used as a clever way of saying something commonplace in dull mathematical fields.

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back

My informant first heard this superstition during recess when she was in the first grade.  She happened to walk on the seams in a sidewalk and the girls she was playing with began to chant the superstition.  My informant had never heard the superstition before and, in the moment, she thought she had actually hurt her mother.  She started sobbing, because she knew how devastation a broken back could be.  Her friends found her crying and they came to comfort her until she stopped crying.  They explained that the connection between cracks and backs was just a superstition.

The whole experience was so traumatic for my informant that she can remember the day nearly perfectly and still thinks about it frequently.  She believes that the superstition was made by a mother who wanted their child to watch their step.  My informant said her daughter is always stepping in gum or dog droppings, and she would love for her daughter to be more cautious of her step. So, instead of getting her to be careful for the sake of her shoes, it’d be a lot easier to get her to be careful for the sake of her mother.  She also said that this superstition is mainly used by kids because only kids would believe in a connection between cracks in the sidewalk and their mother’s wellbeing.  My informant said that later in her childhood, even though she didn’t believe the superstition, she used to step on the cracks depending on her feelings about her mother at the time.  This gave her a way to vent some of her anger without actually causing harm to her mom.

I believe the superstition was started by a bored child who had to walk home from school everyday.  Personally, I only had to walk to my mother’s car, and even with this short distance, I know I stared at the sidewalk much longer than I ever should have.  After staring at the concrete for so long, it’s likely that such a rhyming superstition would be thought of.  Also, a popular variant suggests that stepping on a crack is bad luck in general, which puts both you and your mother at risk.  I believe the meaning behind the superstition is to watch your step, because if you don’t, you’re likely to trip or trod on something gross.


Standard saran wrap will cling to itself, and using this property, it is possible to temporarily trap a friend in bed my tightly wrapping a few rolls around the width of their bed while they sleep.


My informant learned this practical joke when members of his club water polo team started to talk about it.  His teammates were also playing for their respective high school teams at the same time, and a few of them had just returned from a tournament in San Jose.  During the trip, they had succeeded in pulling this prank on the only freshman that played on their varsity team.  While away from home, the whole team shared a room of bunk beds for when they needed to sleep.  Early in they day, they pulled the freshman’s bed out from the wall, to make it easier to unroll the saran wrap around the width of the bed.  Once the freshman had fallen asleep, the rest of the team unraveled several rolls of saran wrap around the freshman, holding him in place.  The rest of the team woke up five minutes before the freshman and watched him struggle and scream a few times before he saw the saran wrap holding him down.

My informant thought this was awesome and he decided he would try it himself as soon as possible.  He told me that this prank can work as long as you share a room and it works best if the victim is sleeping on the top of a bunk bed because it’s easier to maneuver the saran wrap.  The victim will wake up and try to get up like usual, but none of his appendages will respond because they’re held in place under the layers of saran wrap.  They’ll be terrified, trapped, and paralyzed for a few moments until they figure out what has happened.  He also suggested that it’s used because the culprits bond as they plan the prank and it’s funny to watch the victim struggle in bed.

This prank closely simulates the human condition of sleep paralysis.  Someone suffering from sleep paralysis will experience temporary paralysis after they wake up.  It occurs when the brain awakes from REM sleep before the rest of the body.  The paralysis can last for a few seconds to a few minutes, until the person is able to return to sleep or completely awaken. To a person that doesn’t suffer from sleep paralysis, waking up with the inability to move can be terrifying.  One’s mind immediately starts to imagine life as a quadriplegic before looking for any reasonable explanation for the immobility.

I have a personal experience with this prank because my informant attempted to perform it on me.  We attended a weekend-long winter camp in high school.  On the first night, I woke up, it was extremely bright and it felt like there were daggers in my face.  I immediately thought to sit up and stop whatever was hurting my face.  There was a little resistance, and I sat up and saw my informant and friends laughing.  I punched a few of them before turning over and going back to bed.  In the morning my informant told me the group had tried to trap me in bed, but they could not get the saran wrap tight enough to hold me down.  Also, the group grew tired of waiting for me to wake up, so they shined a flashlight in my eyes.  When that didn’t work, they threw snow in my face.  This accounts for the brightness and the pain I felt on my face.  I was upset that I had been awoken from my sleep and that my face hurt from being covered in snow, but I was also glad that the group chosen to prank me over anyone else.  In this way, this was a rite of passage, as I had gone from an outsider to someone that was involved in their prank.  Similarly, the freshman mentioned earlier was accepted by his team in the same way.

Legend of Pele and Kahawali

“During the rule of Kealiikukii, an ancient king of Hawaii, there was a tribe called the Puna, and its chief was named Kahawali.  For fun, Kahawali used to go sledding down the sloping side of a hill with a friend.  People used to come from all around to watch them sled. One day, the crowds attracted the attention of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. She assumed the appearance of a woman and challenged Kahawali to a sled race.  Kahawali won the race due to Pele’s inexperience.  The two returned to the top of the hill and Pele asked Kahawali to give her his sled.  Kahawali refused because Pele appeared to be no more than an average native woman.  Kahawali then shot down the hill on the sled.  In response, Pele transformed into her supernatural form and pursued him down the hill.  Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, Kahawali saw Pele chasing him with lightning, earthquakes, and streams of lava.  Then, he found a broad spear and his friend and the two fled together.  As they fled, Kahawali ran past his favorite pig, his mother, his children, his wife, his sister and his brother and grieved for them as he passed.  While his family and pig were consumed by the lava, Kahawali and his friend were able to escape using the broad spear as a bridge to cross a crevice and as a sail for their getaway canoe.  The pair settled on the island of Oahu, and lived there for the rest of their days.”


My informant is a park ranger for the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, and part of his job description is to learn as many legends as possible about Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess.  He learned this particular story by reading a book on Hawaiian folklore in the park’s gift store.  The mother’s side of my informant’s family is of native Hawaiian descent, and his relatives have told him several legends, but they had never taught him this particular legend.

This is my informant’s favorite Pele legend, and he tells it to everyone that stops to talk with him at the information desk.  He finds it the most interesting because of the ruthlessness of Pele’s pursuit of Kahawali.  He believes that this legend is still shared in some households of native Hawaiians, just as a way to connect with their ancestry, and that no one really believes Pele is responsible for all volcanic activity.  He also suggested that the legend was originated by the Hawaiians of the past to explain a volcanic eruption that occurred during a thunderstorm.

This story is a legend because it occurs in the real world and invites discussion as to whether or not this event ever happened.  The story gives a time frame, sometime during Kealiikukii’s rule, and occurs in a real place, on the island of Hawaii.  Also, while unlikely, one could argue that Pele exists and is responsible for all volcanic activity and that she chased a Hawaiian chief out to sea.

My personal opinion about this Hawaiian legend is that it is told as a warning to be as prepared as possible for a natural disaster.  No one from Puna survived except for Kahawali and his friend.  If possible, the tribe should have built their houses on hilltops so that a wave of lava wouldn’t consume their homes and families.  Or, if that’s not possible, the tribe could have an evacuation route to the sea planned.  Instead leaving his family behind and grieving for their eminent deaths, Kahawali might have been able to run to the sea with them if an escape route had been made.

Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten

German Proverb: “Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten”

Direct Translation: “Pour the baby out with the bath”

Common Translation: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water”

My informant doesn’t consider himself fluent in German, but he’s taken several years of German coursework.  Last year he was studying a course reader and at first glance, he thought he had read that someone killed their baby.  However, when he read the page over again and realized it was just this proverbial expression that he recognized in English.  He could not recall the first time he had heard the expression in English, however.

My informant understands the proverb to mean that one should be careful not to discard something worth holding onto.  While a baby in a tub of bath water may be the most extreme example of this sentiment, my informant likes to use it because it’s dramatic and this makes it useful as a persuasion tactic. He also suggested that this proverb is commonly used because anyone can discard something they would rather keep and that there is no German significance to the proverb, other than that its origin.

With respect to using the proverb, it comes in handy when convincing that there may be valuable material in what may seem to be a trash.  The idea is that one can get another party to be careful not to confuse important material with junk.  It is also important to note that with the advent of better indoor plumbing, bath water no longer has to be thrown out, given that most modern showers have drains.  So the popularization of modern indoor plumbing indicates a time period that the proverb existed before, or a terminus ante quiem.  It’s important to realize that regardless of the change in technology, this proverb continues makes sense because the context can be understood.

I recently heard this proverb in a chemistry lecture.  The professor was explaining that when constructing a certain diagram, it was only required that we only had to represent the lowest energy model.  In this case, we were allowed to leave out part of a diagram.  He used the proverb to encourage the class not to discard a part of the diagram that was still needed.  In accordance with my professor’s example, I also believe it means not to get rid of anything you might need when discarding what you don’t.