Category Archives: Proverbs

Finnish Tar Remedies

Informant Background:

My informant, KL, is my mother. Her father was born in Finland and immigrated to the United States as a young adult. When she was younger, her father would heat up pine tar in boiling water and have her breathe in the fumes if she as sick.

Piece of Folklore:

            When KL was sick as a child, she remembers her father heating up pine tar in boiling water and having her lean over and breathe in the steam to clear out a head cold. Tar would also sometimes be diluted and rubbed on her and her siblings’ chests for the same effect. She also remembers a saying: ”Jossei viina terva ja sauna auta ni se on kuolemaksi,” which roughly translates to “If vodka, tar, and a sauna cannot cure you, it is likely fatal.*”

*: A slightly different version of this saying is referenced in a Finish journal of social medicine:

Pietilä, Ilkka. “Kontekstuaalinen vaihtelu miesten puheessa terveydestä: yksilöhaastatteluiden ja ryhmäkeskustelujen vertaileva analyysi.” Sosiaalilääketieteellinen aikakauslehti 46.3 (2009).


            Tar was believed to have powerful medicinal qualities – everything from treating skin ailments to serving as an antiseptic and antibiotic. It was more or less considered a cure-all, and was often at hand because it was also used for sealing boats. Similar treatments for colds are still in common use across many cultures – breathing in steam is thought to help de-congest the nose, and similar chest rubs are used to relieve coughs.

Proverb – “It is what it is”


“It is what it is” 


KY is an 18-year-old American Student at USC. She grew up in North Carolina. I asked her if she knew any proverbs or commonly said phrases and she told me this one. Her interpretation of it is, “People would say it whenever something happened that might be stressful or might not be what the plan was supposed to be, and you just shake it off and go with it.”


This proverb is one I’ve heard often and is used in similar contexts to what my informant described. When something happened that was a bummer but there wasn’t anything that could be done about it, we would say “it is what it is” to signify that what happened had happened and nothing could be changed about it so it was best not to worry. Proverbs like this are a good example of vernacular authority, where people can look back on how insignificant some small issues in life were now that they are older. This proverb specifically shows us that while the past is important in this culture, it is much more important to look on to the future and control things that can be controlled since they haven’t happened yet instead of dwelling on things that can’t be changed. 

A Hair Past a Freckle


“When someone asks you the time and you don’t know what time it is because you’re not wearing a watch or don’t have your phone, my family always goes ‘Oh, it’s a hair past a freckle’ or ‘A freckle past a hair’. You use the two interchangeably just depending on whatever mood you’re in.”


OA is a 21-year-old American student at USC. She grew up in Washington. I asked her about any proverbs she knew of or sayings that were common to her. This proverb is used as a joke. “It’s something my dad did because his dad did it.”


Family folklore is special because it identifies people who are in the group (your family), and those who are out of the group easily. Things that might not seem funny to outsiders could be incredibly funny to your family, or vice versa. These things can develop from specific moments, or their origins can be more fluid. My friend mentioned that this was something she says to her friends now as well, which shows that even folklore that originates as family-specific has the capacity to grow beyond families and enter into a more widespread usage. This specific proverb seems to be related to “it’s time for you to get a watch,” as it pokes fun at the person for not knowing the time and highlights our society’s reliance on time. Timeliness is very important in the United States, whereas in other cultures being on time isn’t as important. So, when someone doesn’t have a watch or isn’t aware of what time it is, people make fun of them because they should know what time it is in a society where time is everything. 

Biblical Proverb with Colloquial Use


“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”


JN is a 50-year-old freelance writer in Minnesota, where she grew up as well. When asked about any proverbs she knows, she mentioned this proverb, that her parents used to say to her when she was growing up. She described it as “children in the 1970s and 1980s were sort of in the way.” Meaning that they were seen as a burden sometimes and weren’t viewed in a positive light. She mentioned that this proverb is based on a biblical proverb that children were supposed to receive corporal punishment (like spanking) so they don’t get spoiled.


Proverbs like this can give a good insight into what values were important in different times. This is a proverb that isn’t as common nowadays because corporal punishment is usually looked down upon as a form of discipline, but it used to be very normal and not seen as an issue/abusive (as we might consider it now). It gives insight into generational differences in values and how children are treated as a result of those values. The verse it comes from reads “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” (The Holy Bible, Prov. 13.24). The use of this proverb also showcases the importance of religion in this context, where people derive their treatment of children (and others) from biblical teachings (even if they misinterpret or loosely interpret the teachings themselves). People can use proverbs like this to justify behavior, even if we would consider that behavior wrong, using a common saying makes it seem like it is advisable. 

낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다 – Birds listen to morning/day words. Rats listen to night words.


J. is a 20-year-old Korean-American college student currently studying in Los Angeles, California. She grew up her whole life in Alexandria, a suburban city in northern Virginia near Washington DC. She attributes her connection to her Korean culture through her family and regular engagement with Korean media.


This proverb can be used by anyone but is usually given from a parent to a child or from a wiser, older figure to a more naive, younger one in Korean language and culture. For J. she heard this proverb from her mom whenever she started to talk negatively about someone else.

Main Piece:

“낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다”

Translation: “Birds listen to morning/day words. Rats listen to night words.”


This proverb serves as a premonition for those having in-group identification with Korean language and culture. While the animal-related translation does not necessarily make literal sense, it carries implied meaning behind it. Essentially, it implies that whenever or wherever you are, you should be careful about who you talk about because you might inadvertently be overheard by someone. Birds and rats are metaphorically likened to human listeners without explicit mention that they are so. The juxtaposition between opposites of day and night also lends poetic connotations to the phrase when spoken. This phrase is used as a warning for people to be careful about talking bad about others and to never be sure who could be eavesdropping—a virtually universally applicable mantra now conveyed proverbially through this piece of Korean folklore. The typical verbal deliverance of this proverb from an older, wiser figure to a younger, more naive one therefore often carries authority with it when performed.