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.

If you tap the top of a dropped soda can, it will not fizz out of the can when opened.

As a child, my source first heard this superstition because he was rather clumsy and would always drop his soda cans.  He first instance he can remember where he practiced this superstition was with his teammates from his little league baseball team.  All of his teammates would tap on the tops of their soda cans under any condition, just to be sure to limit the fizz.  My source suggested that this could have been a popular trend shared by his teammates or the result of several players being chewed out by their parents for spilling soda on their uniforms.

My source doesn’t quite understand how the superstition works, but is assured that it’s effective.  After tapping the top of his soda cans he has rarely ever had a spill.  If he had to guess, he supposes that when the can is tapped, carbonation bubbles stuck to the side of the can are nudged to the top of the can, and when the can is opened, the gas is released without dragging any liquid out with it.  My source has also heard of a ‘three-tap method,’ where the can needs to be tapped only three times, but he is not sure where he heard this.

Scientifically, when a can is dropped, the carbon dioxide that carbonates the soda is forced out of the liquid and into a gas form which builds pressure in the can.   If the can is opened soon after, the pressure will be released and the gas will rush out, dragging the soda with it.  If somebody taps on a soda can, that’s an added disturbance, which would likely cause more of the carbon dioxide to be freed from the liquid, so the superstition should not work.  What does work is waiting for the pressure to be reduced. After a drop, given time, the carbon dioxide will assimilate back into the liquid, reducing the pressure and fizz when the can is opened.  Also, because of the built up pressure, the rate at which one opens a can is significant because it regulates the speed any carbon dioxide is released.  Finally, there is a theory that if you tap a can with a metal rod, it will create a vibration in the aluminum can that will cause all of the gas to move to the top of the can, reducing potential fizz, but this method isn’t proven.

From my own personal experience, I have experienced good results after I’ve tapped the top of my dropped soda can, but I cannot attribute it to the superstition.  I believe that by tapping the top of the soda can, you’re spending more time not opening the can.  As long as you’re tapping, the soda can isn’t opened, and this gives the carbon dioxide more time to be pushed back into the liquid.




Annotation: A variant of this superstition is featured in episode 513 (My Five Stages) of Bill Lawrence’s NBC sitcom Scrubs as the “John Dorian three-tap method.  Three taps and the foam goes bye-bye.”  The character, JD, then opens the can, and after a pause, all hell breaks loose and foam flies everywhere.

It is bad luck for tourists to remove Hawaiian lava rocks from the islands

My informant has lived on the island of Hawaii his whole life.  He currently works at the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.  He first heard of the superstition when his parents would complain about the increasing amount of tourism to the island.  They would justify their discontent by acknowledging that all of the tourists who would return home with volcanic rock would be stricken with bad luck.

At the national park, my informant has been taught, and is expected to know, the details of the superstition.  Apparently, the volcanic goddess, Pele, curses visitors who return to their homelands with a lava rock.  At the national park, they frequently receive packages which contain lava rocks that people have taken and wish to return because of their bad luck.  They expect that by returning the rocks, their luck will change for the better.  The worst instance he has heard of was a man who was laid off of work and broke his leg in the same month.  He believes the superstition was created by native Hawaiians trying to discourage tourists from disturbing the landscape.  He has never left the island with a volcanic rock before, so he doesn’t have any firsthand experience with the curse.

In my opinion, the lava operates as an item the tourists can blame their misfortunes on.  Then, whenever something goes wrong, they think of the lava rock instead of brushing it off.  Then the tourists feel like they have to free themselves of the burden the rock has put them in.  Also, I have heard of how much the native Hawaiians hate tourists, so it’s likely this superstition was started to discourage tourist activity.  Also, this makes sense because tourism to Hawaii has only become popular in the last century.  To tie an ancient figure like Pele to a more modern practice makes it evident that the curse is not genuine and the native Hawaiians just don’t like tourists taking pieces of Hawaii home with them.

It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock

My informant first heard this folk simile as a child growing up on a farm in Nebraska.  One day when he was out with his father, it began to rain.  While rain was not out of the ordinary at that time of year, the rain was coming down with unusual ferocity.  My informant recalled that the wind was blowing the rain in every which direction and when the rain hit the ground, it splattered everywhere.   Another farmer turned to my informant’s father and rattled off this folk simile.

Growing up on a farm, my informant knew from experience exactly what happens when a cow pisses on a flat rock.  “It’s splatters everywhere and makes a huge mess,” he explained.  This is not a secret, and anyone can understand how this directly compares with a heavy rainstorm.  But for one to fully appreciate the humor in this simile, they would have to have a first-hand experience to relate to.  For this reason, this folk simile is mostly shared among farmers and others residing in rural communities.

There’s no underlying message that can be found within this simile.  It’s used because it takes something that’s funny to think about, to the folk group, and applies it to an unfavorable situation.  It turns an unfavorable rain storm into something to laugh about.

“Is Bill Gates rich?”


My source first heard this rhetorical question when he was asked one of his friends from Seattle whether or not they wanted to go to a party.  The friend replied, “Is Bill Gate’s rich?”  Of course Bill Gates is rich.  He’s the cofounder and chairman of Microsoft, and has been the richest man in the world for over a decade. So, of course his friend wanted to go to the party.  Rather than just say yes in response to the invitation, the rhetorical question was used for effect to show just how eager they were to go.

My source is from Seattle, Washington, and this is where he first learned of this rhetorical question.  This makes sense, because Bill Gates grew up and also owns a residence in the Seattle area.  He also donates to local universities and organizations.  In the given situation, his friend could have just as easily replied, “Is the Pope Catholic?”  They could have also said, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”  Both of these rhetorical questions are replaceable with my source’s rhetorical question, but because of the local connection to Bill Gates, my source’s rhetorical question was the one that was used.

Soon after he heard this rhetorical question for the first time, my source began to hear it quite frequently afterwards.  It is used among many of his friends and his family as an emphatic way of saying yes.  However, since he moved to Los Angeles for college, my source has not heard the rhetorical question once.  He suggested that this lore is shared mostly, or is preferred by Seattle residents because of their local connection to Bill Gates.

USC Football Superstition

“Before a USC football game, when walking from the campus to the Coliseum, it is good luck to kick the bases of the flagpoles at the intersection of Trousdale Parkway and Exposition Boulevard.”


My informant first heard of this superstition when walking to the first Trojans home game of the 2005 season. He had been to a Trojans football game before, but only with his parents, and they did not pass the intersection of Trousdale and Exposition.  On this particular day, he was walking with a few friends, and on their way to the Coliseum they noticed that everyone was kicking the flagpoles at the intersection.  So they joined in and gave the flagpoles a kick.  My informant didn’t need to ask, and easily figured out this was a traditional practice for good luck.

This tradition is shared by every fan wearing cardinal and gold that passes by that intersection.  My informant suggested that a long time ago, a Trojan fan gave a swift kick to the flagpole, and the football team preformed well and decimated their opponent.  From then on, they probably continued to kick the flagpole before every game and others began to join in.  While this may not be the official history of the superstition, it is likely that it was under these or similar circumstances that the superstition came about.

While many superstitions are believed to affect one’s own luck and fortune, this one is believed to influence the performance of a sports team.  So if a fan passed through the intersection without kicking a flagpole, and the Trojans lost, that fan could be considered liable for that day’s loss.  On the other hand, this is an instance where fans can unite and believe that they actually did something to help their team.