Category Archives: folk simile

Chinese Enigmatic Folk Similes

Background: A friend and I were talking about the COVID-19 situation in the US. She mentioned that at late February, when COVID started to spread in the US, some people bought masks and sent them to Wuhan, China to support the medical workers there. She brought up this common saying:

Main piece: 


Pinyin: ni pu sa duo he——zi shen nan bao

Transliteration: A mud Bodhisattva crosses the river——She can’t even save herself.

Context: This piece of folk speech is often used to describe people who are well-intentioned to help others, but are themselves in dangerous or unstable situations. In the context of COVID, the informant means that it is kind for those people to send masks to Wuhan, but their very own lives are at stake in the US already.

Analysis: This is an example of a particular genre of folk speech in Chinese, 歇后语 (xie hou yu), which has been translated as “Chinese enigmatic folk similes” or “quiz-cracks”. Different from proverbs, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t directly offer a conclusion or an advice. Different from riddles, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t propose an explicit question and doesn’t have an answer. Enigmatic folk similes often contain multiple meanings. Its form is often separated into two parts. The first part succinctly tells a story, often alluding to historical or religious instances, and the second part provides a proverbial conclusion that is in line with the context created by the first part, but often with deeper connotations. In this case, the story, “a mud Bodhisattva crosses the river”, requires the audience to imagine and suppose that mud dissembles in water, and therefore a mud Bodhisattva in a river, no matter what good intention she has, might perish before she is able to help others. The deeper connotation is that regardless of good intention, one must first be responsible for themselves before considering others, or else no one is benefitted. 

For different versions of enigmatic folk similes, see 

Rohsenow, John Snowden. A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (xiēhòuyǔ) = Han Ying xie hou yu ci dian. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

“Sweating Like A Hooker in Church”


“Sweating like a hooker in church”

“I believe that the saying is more of a way to describe sweating or nerves.  We probably say that down here cause we always like to make things a bit more illustrative then y’all do and we always love a church reference.  It’s not sweaty like a person whose been working all day, but more like when somebody is nervous about something that they are holding back from others like a secret or something of the sort”


This informant, HA, was born in Pensacola, FL but has lived in a few different parts of the American South for awhile, specifically the Floribama coastal area.  His family has stayed in the south for as far back as he can remember.


I talked to HA by inviting them onto a zoom call with a few other friends we both knew from summer vacations where I used to live in Panama City, Florida.  After the call I asked if he could stay and chat and we shared stories about our lives while I asked him questions about sayings and activities he remembered from his childhood.


The American South has a fascinating way of coining certain terms that sound quintessentially Southern.  It seems upon further research that there are a lot more metaphors and similes used in Southern vernacular than in the rest of the United States.  HA’s relation of the quote to the church was very interesting as it made me think of Mary Magdalene as a possible referential point in how this statement came to be.  As well, variations of it are seen in other parts of the  world, but they still have enough variation where the meaning is shifted and holds itself as a different piece of folklore.  Ie. Midwesterners saying  “Praying like a sinner in church”

Texas Simile

I decided to ask my friend if she knew any interesting folk similes. She shared with me a few she thought reflected her Texas heritage. She is marked KB, and I am marked CS.


KB: “So another simile we always use in Texas is ‘he’s got a ten gallon mouth.’”

CS: “Can you explain to me the meaning of this simile, in your own words?”

KB: “It’s just like, Texas people are really talkative. Like, you talk to them, and they just start…blabbering. Or when people talk really fast. I feel like that’s just such a Texas thing.”

CS: “Have you personally used this simile before?”

KB: “Oh yeah, all of the time.”

CS: “Where did you first hear it?”

KB: “Oh, my dad. Definitely my dad. He always uses Texas phrases.”



Phone conversation in which I recorded KB’s recounts of folk similes as well as a riddle she grew up learning.


KB is a freshman at the University of Southern California and grew up in Austin, Texas.



I did enjoy this simile because although I have never been to Texas, there is definitely a well-known stigma of it and it is clear there are certain sayings you just don’t hear anywhere else. Similar to other Texas simile, this one seems to reflect how deep-rooted Texas’ cultural values are. I never quite thought of folk similes as being so pertinent compared to the other forms of folklore, but clearly in this instance they are. They truly indicate their origins and that origin’s heritage.

Texas Wind Simile

I decided to ask my friend if she had any interesting folk similes. She shared with me a few she thought reflected her Texas heritage. She is marked KB, and I am marked CS.


KB: “So the simile we always use in Texas is, ‘The winds’ blowing like perfume through a prom.’”

CS: “Can you explain to me the meaning of this simile, in your own words?”

KB: “In other words, Texas weather is really intense. Kind of comes out of nowhere. It’s just a really true statement that reflects Texas well I guess.”

CS: “Have you personally used this simile before?”

KB: “Oh yeah, all of the time.”



Phone conversation in which I recorded KB’s recounts of folk similes as well as a riddle she grew up learning.


KB is a freshman at the University of Southern California and grew up in Austin, Texas.



I did enjoy this simile because, although I have never been to Texas, there is definitely a well-known stigma of it and it is clear there are certain sayings you just don’t hear anywhere else. That is what I find most interesting about Texas: there are so many heritages and cultural values it seems that the folklore in the South would be so strong and prevalent.

Good Old Grandpa

Over the past few years, I’ve heard snippets of this friend’s crazy grandpa. Many nights, we’d eat together and share stories of our nutty families, as we both share lineage with what many would call ‘eccentrics’. Self purportedly from a family comprised of 50% white trash and 50% religious explorers, he grew up around a variety of funny saying and stories.

The following was recorded during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“He had a lot of sayings for like the weather. ‘It’s colder than a witch’s tit’. Or, ‘it’s darker than a snake’s asshole.’ There were a lot of asshole things too. ‘Colder than a well-digger’s ass’. ‘I’d rather have acid poured down the crack of my ass than…’ ‘I’m so hungry I could eat the ass out of a dead gorilla’. ‘You talk like you have a paper hat’. ‘You talk like your ass is made of paper’. ‘Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which one fills up first’. ‘Tough titties said the kitty’. He said that one a lot. ‘As useless as tits on a hoe-handle’. ‘Nervous as a whore in church’. ‘Nervous as a pregnant nun’. If something doesn’t go over well, he’d be like, ‘oh, that went over like a turd in a punch bowl’. He also had a lot of superstitions or tics I guess. He’d always get wine with ice in it – my mom’s family is 100% pure white trash. And so, he would order wine with ice in it, and then he would get it, stir it with his pinky, then suck on his finger, and wipe it on the left side of his shirt. Every single time. He’d like dry it off with the corner of his shirt. So all of his shirts had little things sticking off from him pulling on it to dry off his fingers. He’d stir his wine like it was a mixed drink or something.”

These weird little sayings always crack me up. They range from somewhat clever and somewhat useful to totally nonsensical and just plain silly. I especially love the strange ritual my friend’s grandpa performs every time he drinks a glass of wine. He seemed to do things just for the hell of it. What a way to live.

Indonesian Proverb

The informant was my cousin (referred to as LG) who spent 4 years being a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia. There she was teaching school girls English and art. She told me one of the Indonesian teachers would always say this proverb to the girls:


LG: “Bagai pungguk merindukan bulan. Which translates into Like an owl reaching for the moon.”


CI: “What does that really mean?”


LG: “It’s definitely kind of sad, It is basically saying, ‘you’re wishing for something impossible.’ I feel like the older Indonesian generations definitely tried to be what they thought was realistic with their students or children, but also it definitely could be seen as putting the children down.”


I find this particularly interesting because teachers in America are very encouraging and there is a strong sentiment that “The children are the future. But in Indonesia, especially in the village, my cousin lived, which was very poor, it seems that adults think it is important to not encourage the children too much. This proverb isn’t necessarily putting children down, it is just telling them not to dream too big.


Botellita de jerez Todo lo que digas sera al revez

Folk Metaphor

This saying was told by my grandmother  to me which has helped me throughout my life especially when people were being mean to me in school. In English it just means that everything that you say will be backwards so it will go back to you This meaning really helps you fight off those mean words that people tell you in school. You say this and everything that they say is basically going back to them and it really means that what they’re telling you is them telling themselves that.


The significance of this metaphor to the informant was that no matter what people said , with this saying you can turn all the bad things on to them. it was like a magic Karma spell. It has a lot of meaning because it takes way the pain of being called names or being picked on.  The informant like sit because it rhymes and its unique .


This is from Mexico and this saying is very  popularly and  this expression refers to everything you want for someone is going to return, or you’re going to return everything you said; or everything you say will be used against ..With this in mind, it is better not to wish anyone badly, or to say things that can be used against you.

“Casa da Mãe Joana”

My folk simile is a very popular one in Brazil, in Portuguese the simile says: “Isso tá que nem casa da mãe Joana.” In English this would translate to “this is like mom Joana’s house.” I heard this folk simile for the first time a couple of years ago in a movie. The name of the movie was actually “Casa da Mãe Joana” and essentially what it means is a really messy house with a bunch of people and when things get really out of hand and there are a lot of things going on, super messy, everything is all over the place, this is a mom Joana’s house. So every time I think about a place where things are out of hand I think of this comparison.

As Alexandre mentioned, this simile is very popular in Brazil. People use it a lot in parties when things get completely out of control and everything is all over the place. My parents use it a lot, I guess it’s an old saying and comparison but that has been present until this day. Apparently Mom Joana’s house was a very messy place in the movie and as a consequence people make this comparison. It’s an amusing way to say that the place is a mess without sounding bad. It’s perhaps a proposition to get things in order and organize the place. People who aren’t familiar with this comparison will have a hard time to understand what it means but it’s so common in Brazil that I believe almost everyone knows.

“Mais Perdido que Cego em Tiroteio”

There is this popular simile that I heard multiple times, I don’t know the first time I heard it but I keep repeating because it is so famous in Brazil that goes “estou mais perdido que cego em tiroteio” which means that I am more lost than a blind man in cross fire. It’s pretty self-explanatory; it means that you have no idea of what’s going on in the current situation. It’s a nice expression; a great symmetry and I think it’s funny. Although it could be seen a joke I use it occasionally.

This is definitely one of the most popular similes in Brazil; people use it a lot, including myself. When people are telling a story and someone doesn’t seem to understand they use the simile. It’s supposed to be entertaining, even though it might sound offensive at first, it’s just supposed to be a joke. Today I had some trouble to understand a tough math problem for my macroeconomics class and I used it to myself. People also say it when they are driving and aren’t able to find the destination they are looking for. It comes out spontaneously and it’s a fun way to say that you have no clue of what is going on.

“Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh”

The following is from an interview between me and my friend, Carlos, at Blaze Pizza. Carlos is a Catholic missionary from Colombia. We were joined, as well, by another missionary named Nicole. Carlos shared with me a saying in Spanish.

Carlos: “We have a saying in Spanish that is, ‘Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh,’ which I’ve heard it all the time, which is used to make a reference to, like, when someone’s really lost. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s more lost than the son of Lindbergh.’ And I’ve never known why they said that, but um– So like, the saying is, ‘He is more lost than the son of Lindbergh.’ It’s just saying, like, when someone is really lost they can say, ‘Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh.’ I don’t know why, and I just looked it up, and apparently it’s connected to, like, this child abduction case in New Jersey, where, like, the son of Lindbergh was, like, abducted and was killed… and, like, I don’t know why we say that phrase in Spanish but it’s even in Wikipedia, like in Spanish there’s a saying that has this, I don’t know why.”

Me: “Where did you first hear this?”

Carlos: “My parents! Yeah, like, my family, everyone says that in Colombia. They just say, ‘Está más perdido que el hijo de Lindbergh,’ which is awful!”

Like Carlos, I found the existence of this phrase to be quite odd. Because it’s not as if the saying exerts some kind of a warning, or uses the tale of the New Jersey boy to teach children a lesson, making it a proverb. Instead, it’s just this comparison. This made me wonder if perhaps this saying was actually dark humor, but I’m not entirely sure.