Author Archives: mhvora

Water from a Stone – Gujarati Proverb

“પથ્થરમાંથી પાણી લો”

Translation: “getting water from a stone”.

Context: The informant, my mother, was born in India in the 1970s. She had an arranged marriage of sorts, in that she was introduced to different people from good families and could choose someone from them. They would figure out if they were compatible, and get married nearly immediately. She told me that when she was looking for someone to marry, her uncle told her one of the criteria should be to look for someone who could do this. All of my family is from Gujarat, and this is a Gujarati proverb.

If you describe someone with this phrase, it means essentially that they can make something out of any situation– if you give them a stone, they will find water in it. Typically, the “something” they could make would be money. It makes sense to advise someone not to find a man who is already rich, but one who is industrious; even if he has money now, if by circumstance he loses it all, he will be able to make it back.

Analysis: Gujarati culture tends to put a lot of value on being able to make money. It’s a good quality if you want stability in life regardless, but also it comes from years of being traders and businesspeople. A significant amount of Gujarati people are part of the merchant caste, including my family, and so it makes sense to place importance on having the creativity to get oneself out of any bad financial circumstances.

I’ve also noticed that the idea of coaxing something out of a stone (specifically blood) is a concept that can be found in other cultures’ proverbs as well. Interestingly, however, that tends to be in the context of talking about an impossible task or achieving something incredibly difficult. Here, it’s not a “you are destitute and must spin straw into gold” but instead a “you are destitute but you have the intelligence to make this straw you just found into something and the charisma to sell it to someone else”. They seem like oicotypical variations on the idea of someone achieving the difficult task of producing something useful out of something useless, with both likely rendered different by what their respective backgrounds hold relevant.

French Schoolyard Catch Riddle

The catch: being asked to spell J,T, and P, in a French accent

Context: The informant is currently studying at USC, but as a child, she attended a French/English bilingual school. She explained that as a child, other kids would tell her to spell out “J, T, and P” in a French accent. Doing so would result in the informant saying “jé, té, pé,” after which the kids would laugh, as they had tricked her into saying something that sounded like “j’ai pété”, which means “I farted” in French.

Analysis: This is very similar to a typical elementary school catch of asking someone to spell “icup” (resulting in saying something that sounded like “I see you pee”). In Jay Mechling’s chapter on Children’s Folklore from Elliott Oring’s Folk Groups and Folklore Genres, Mechling notes how the child’s body features greatly in children’s folklore, specifically bodily functions. This is an example of humor based on the taboo of bodily excretion; the joke is played on an outgroup and results in them saying that they have done something that other children find embarrassing or gross.

Coincidence? I think not!

“70% of the earth is water and 70% of the body is water. Is that a coincidence? I think not!”

Context: The informant is originally from Illinois and is now a junior at USC. According to her, on the first day back from winter break, her freshman year Spanish teacher asked the class if any of them knew what the second longest river in South America was. He pulled down one of those roll-up maps of South America and instead of explaining what the second longest river was, proceeded to go on a very long philosophical rant about astrology, during which the above quote was said. He continued talking (going wildly off topic), until eventually, he returned to his desk without telling them anything about the river, leaving the class very confused.

Now, with a subset of the informant’s friends who took the class, the phrase is used whenever anyone mentions anything related to a body, water, coincidence, or the phrase “i think not”. Despite the context of the conversation, this has developed into an inside joke, partially as a continuous mockery of the teacher, and partially as a remembrance of what the informant referred to as “the good old days”.

Analysis: Honestly, nothing brings a group together better than a common enemy. The inside joke created provides a reminder of shared experiences, moving beyond the context of the class to become a reminder of high school entirely.

However, the real value of this collection comes from the use of, “Coincidence? I think not!” which seems to be a traditional phrase consistently appended to the end of other sentences. The true relevance comes from the consistent use of this with no real knowledge of its origin. From quick research, the internet marks its origin as a quote from the 2004 movie “The Incredibles”, but from conversation with others and further research, it seems as if it has been used long before this (another internet forum notes that it was used in a movie from 1984). Attempts to date the phrase result in a terminus ante quem situation, in which it seems as if had to have been said before 2005, but nobody knows where it was originated or how it was popularized.

Feeling “a box of birds” or feeling “crook”

To say one is feeling a “box of birds” to mean feeling good or “crook” to mean feeling bad

Context: The informant is half-Indian and half-New Zealander, with her dad being an immigrant from New Zealand. At one point, the informant’s paternal great grandmother was over for Christmas and she had caught a cold, so her family took her to the doctor, and according to the informant when the doctor asked her how she was doing she said “Well yesterday I was a box of birds and now I’m feeling a bit crook”.

Analysis: According to the informant, “box of birds” is used to describe someone who’s doing or feeling well, while “crook” is used to describe someone who is doing poorly. The informant’s family is from New Zealand, and the informant only remembers her great-grandmother being the one to use it. In doing some research, I found that “box of birds” is a common idiom in both New Zealand and Australia used to describe feeling good/doing well, due to one “feeling chirpy”, which the informant agreed was accurate to her family’s definition and context of use. “Feeling chirpy” is a similar nature-based idiom, referring to someone who is cheerful and in good spirits, similar to birds chirping excitedly. Having that much energy would logically require one to be in good health. It is unknown if both expressions were derived independently, but if so, that would indicate an instance of polygenesis, with at least two independently derived expressions relating health/energy with birdsong. It stands to reason that birdsong, like other behaviors that are consistently observed by a large amount of people would make their way into the vocabulary. Using them as comparisons would evoke a shared experience and facilitate understanding.

In the same regions, the slang “crook” refers to feeling bad or in bad health but seems as if it has less clear origins; crook comes from crooked, which can mean incorrectly or wrongly shaped, which might be where the slang comes from. Both seem to be instances of folk speech, either evolving from common

Barney Parody Song

“Joy to the world, Barney’s dead
We barbecued his head!”

Context: The informant is a junior at USC, originally from Illinois. She told me that children from her elementary school would sing this song to the same tune as “Joy to the World,” and while there’s more to the song, she doesn’t remember it. She hasn’t sung it in a very long time and does remember there being different versions of the song as well. The “Barney” referenced is Barney the purple dinosaur from the children’s show Barney & Friends.

Analysis: From my experience, a lot of elementary schools had parody songs related to violence against Barney, but this was the first I had heard of that wasn’t actually to the tune of the show’s theme song. Regardless, this, as per Jay Mechling’s chapter in Elliott Oring’s Folk Groups and Folklore Genres, reflects one of the antithetical categories of children’s folklore: parodies. Violence against Barney is a purposeful subversion of the show’s theme (a theme that starts with “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family”) and, considering Barney was a cornerstone of many childhoods, almost seems to function as a rejection of that childishness. I think that as we grow up, it becomes “cool” to be more like the older kids; it becomes “cool” to associate with more taboo concepts like sex and violence. It becomes “uncool” to continue to believe in the blissfully unrealistic world Barney portrays, or to engage in displays of earnest emotion. Parodying violence against Barney seems to function as a way to divorce oneself from that childishness and start moving more towards adulthood. It reinforces social dynamics between age groups and shames those who still like things deemed as “childish,” defining social norms that persist far beyond childhood.