Author Archives: swatson

You Catch More Flies with Honey than with Vinegar

Context: My informant, RW, is my mother. She grew up in Texas in the 1970s. I asked her to tell me proverbs she heard during her childhood. This piece was collected during an informal interview at home.

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Main Text: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar”

Informant analysis:

SW: “When would you say that?”

RW: “When would you say that? When you’re trying to persuade someone or you’re upset with someone. Mostly trying to persuade someone… usually someone you’re upset with and you really wanna tell them to piss off.

SW: “Where did you learn it?”

RW: “My grandmother.”

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Analysis:

This proverb shows a general American value of politeness, but how that value can also come from a place of trying to get what you want and not pure altruism. The fact that my mom associates it with when you’re upset with someone is interesting to me, because I’ve usually heard the proverb in reference to business proposals or other things like that, not necessarily when you’re upset with someone. The fact that it was the first proverb my mom thought of shows that she is always more concerned with being polite and winning people over through sweetness, something I’ve noticed in her everyday life.

A Viola Joke

Context:

My informant, AW, is my 15-year-old brother. He has played violin since he was four, and played in many youth orchestras throughout his life. In many orchestras, the violists are considered the black sheep of the group and many jokes are made at their expense, especially by violinists, their rivals. This piece was collected during an informal interview at home when I asked my brother about rituals or practices within orchestras. I refer to myself as SW in the text.

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Main Text:

AW: “Violists are the worst, scum of the earth.”

SW: “Know any good viola jokes?”

AW: “Did you hear about the violist who played in tune? Yeah me neither.”

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Informant analysis:

SW: “Do violists participate in making viola jokes, or are they supposed to be annoyed by viola jokes?”

AW: “In general… the general consensus is that… well ok there can be both. If you’re a cool violist, you participate. If you are… a violist, you get annoyed by it… They’re kinda like the middle child of the entire orchestra. Violin section is the younger child who gets everything they want and deserve. Or not deserve – everything they want and don’t deserve, and gets away with everything. Cellists are the older brothers that have to take up the entire… like the older sibling that have to take up the entire like… weight of the orchestra. And then violists are… there, I guess.”

SW: “But how do you learn you’re supposed to make fun of violists?”

AW: “Um… by… honestly by seeing other people make fun of violists. Nobody really actually thinks that violas are bad, they just are, because everyone says they are.”

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Analysis:

Viola jokes are one of the most common types of humor to spread around orchestras, especially youth orchestras. My brother and I are both violinists, so we have a special love of viola jokes since we are the ones who are supposed to “hate” our sworn rivals, the violists. Many violists started as violinists, and they are generally seen as “less good” violinists. The joke itself works on this principle – while violinists are expected to always be in tune, no one can ever find a violist who plays in tune. The entire orchestra will recognize viola jokes as a common musician humor format, and it often turns into a round of rapid fire viola jokes to see who has the best one. As AW stated, it is less about anybody thinking people who play viola are actually bad musicians. More likely, it is because the viola is an awkward instrument that never gets the melody, and is therefore an easy target.

Full moons, storms, and women in labor

Context: 

My informant, RW, is my mother. She was a labor and delivery nurse in a Dallas hospital in the 1990s. I asked her to tell me if there were any superstitions or rituals she learned working as a nurse. This piece was collected during an informal interview at home. I refer to myself as SW in the text.

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Main Text:

RW: “If you were ever working during a full moon or a stormy night, you knew it was going to be a busy shift.”

SW: “Why?”

RW: “I don’t know why the full moon. The thunderstorms was probably because of barometric pressure. I don’t know… And you never, ever, EVER say ‘it’s slow tonight’. If anyone started to say it was slow everyone starts screaming at them going ‘Ah noooo! Why?’ And it always happened, there’d be a giant influx after that.”

SW: “Who was the first person who told you about the full moon thing, or the thunderstorm thing?”

RW: “My nurse preceptor at Parkland. They thought it was something to do with the gravitational pull or something I don’t know.”

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Analysis:

The fact that saying something can make it come true is an example of performative speech. It’s interesting that even in as scientific of a job as working as a nurse, folklore is still very prevalent and spreads. Despite everything they know pointing to the lack of influence of full moons on how many women go into labor, the belief still persists. This probably is a very old belief having to do with lunar cycles and how they have been tied to menstruation and fertility for many cultures. There is also still an element of labor that is uncontrollable despite all the scientific knowledge we have, so folklore fills the gaps in what science can’t explain.

बंदर क्या जाने अदरक का स्वाद (How can a monkey appreciate the taste of ginger?)

Context:

My informant, AS, is a 19-year-old Indian male who grew up in Mumbai, though he has lived in Southern California for the past three years. He now attends UCI. He is fluent in both English and Hindi. This piece was collected during a facetime call, when I asked him to share a typical Hindi proverb with me.

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Main Text:

Proverb: बंदर क्या जाने अदरक का स्वाद 

Phonetic script: bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad

Transliteration: Monkey what knows ginger(‘s) taste

Translation: How can a monkey appreciate the taste of ginger?

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Informant analysis:

“It’s basically used when someone doesn’t appreciate something of quality. For example, if I don’t like the taste of something like caviar, you’d use this proverb.”

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Analysis:

This proverb would appear to show that in Indian culture there is a healthy respect for the finer things in life, and a negative attitude towards those who don’t appreciate quality goods or work. It’s interesting because I can’t think of a direct English equivalent, beyond possibly “enjoy the finer things in life.” This might point to very different cultural values between Hindi-speakers and English-speakers

The Titanic – Children’s Song

Context:

My informant, RW, is my mom. She grew up in Texas and attended YMCA camps most summers in her childhood in the 1970s. I have heard her sing this song to my brother and I at many points, but never knew exactly where she learned it. This piece was collected informally at home when I asked her to sing it again for me to record. I refer to myself as SW in the text.

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Main Text:

RW: “This was from the YMCA camp I believe. Or… I think it was YMCA camp… it was at GDRA in Texas, I think it was YMCA but… 

‘The Titanic never made it

And never more shall be

It was sad when that great ship

Went down to the bottom of the sea

It was sad, how sad!

It was sad, too bad!

It was sad when that great ship

Went down to the bottom of the…

Uncles and aunts!

Little bitty children lost their pants!

It was sad when that great ship 

Went down to the bottom of the sea’

And it’s all happy and peppy and you sing right along with ‘everybody died, yay!’ There was a lot more to that song, but that’s like the chorus.”

SW: “So you did that at YMCA camp, did it spread past there? Did everybody know it?”

RW: “All of my friends did!”

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Analysis:

This is a good example of the juxtaposition of tragic events in a joking context in folklore. While it’s not necessarily directly reckoning with the Titanic sinking since my mom learned it at YMCA camp in the 1970s, it is still an example of how children often have a morbid curiosity and like to make jokes about the things we would consider generally unfit for children to know about. In a way, it is also boundary exploration and learning how to express taboo topics in a way that is socially acceptable. By singing about the Titanic sinking, kids are learning how to navigate the unstable world of topics adults try to shield them from in their own unique and playful way.