Category Archives: Childhood

Cat’s cradle

My informant was a Japanese-American college student at USC who grew up in California. Below is a transcript of our conversation talking about the cat’s cradle, a playground game she played as an elementary schooler.

“A cat’s cradle is a string that you can manipulate into different shapes with your hands by making a series of movements with your fingers. It was taught by my friends in elementary school and requires other people to help out to work since the patterns are easily forgettable; I had to ask people all the time how to do it. If you could make a shape out of a string people thought you were cool because you’re making a new shape out of a simple string. It felt mysterious and skillful, like a cool trick you can do to impress other kids on the playground.

I remember I also tried to teach my mom it, who said that she knew how to do it when she was younger but she forgot how to do it as she grew older. I didn’t play cat’s cradle after elementary school. There was no particular reason why; new trends just came up and I forgot how to make it.”

Cat’s cradle seems to invoke a similar sense of fascination and mystery as performing magic tricks, but this sensation seems to be quite ephemeral. It’s reminiscent of how children grow out of pretend play because they feel childish pretending like they’re something else and they want to feel more “grown-up” (this is reflected in how “too old to play pretend” is a common saying.) Because cat’s cradle was a social activity and needed other people to learn it from, the informant probably felt social pressure to stop doing something no longer regarded as “cool” anymore. The fact that the informant’s mother also knew how to do it but forgot as she grew older suggests that this is a common pattern among young children and occurs with every generation.

Arbol Torcido Saying

Informant Info:

  • Nationality: Mexican
  • Age: 50
  • Occupation: N/A
  • Residence: Los Angeles 
  • Primary language: Spanish 
  • Relationship: mother 


“Arbol que nace torcido, jamas su tronco endereza.”

No literal english translation

 Closest english translation to the phrase above : “tree that is born crooked, its trunk never straightens 


EP says the saying has different meanings; she states, “Puede ser una persona o cosa que estaba hecho mal desde el principio, jamas va ser derecha o jamas se va corregir.” It can be a person or thing that was made wrong from the beginning, it will never be just. The informant says it’s a “refran” or “dicho,” which in English means it is a proverb, a saying, or a riddle. She first heard the saying from her parents when she was about 5 years old. She said at first she didn’t know the significance or true meaning of it until it was explained to her. However, she told me that it was also one of those things that was common sense because you could put two and two together when it is said in a certain situation. She also remembers hearing the proverb told during specific situations. An example she provided me with was of a son who was always reckless as a child and continues to live a reckless life. 


I had never heard this proverb before, and at first I was confused because of how the words are phrased in Spanish. Once the informant further explained what it meant, I was able to draw my own interpretation of the proverb. I believe the saying refers to a person who is believed to be unable to change due to the way they were raised or grew up. I believe that from a young age, the way we are educated and what we learn from the people surrounding us leave an impact on us. There are various factors that will help shape who you will become when you grow up. A crooked trunk will never straighten because it was born that way. This could be interpreted in the context of a person that holds negative values and attitudes from a young age. This individual will find it more difficult to change these bad characteristics and habits because they have been instilled into their being. Adopting new habits and values is always possible, but it will be more of a challenge to do so. The person must be willing to change and put in the effort to become better and “enderezer”(straighten).

“Mary’s Mother” Riddle


Riddle: “Mary’s mother has five children. Her first four children’s names are April, May, June, and July. What is the fifth child’s name?”

Answer: “Mary”


H is currently a student at USC. She originally heard this riddle from someone at her elementary school in San Diego, California, where the students would tell it amongst each other. After sharing the riddle, H remarked that the important part of the joke seemed to be the “gotcha” twist. They also noted that the names of the four other children didn’t seem to matter as much as there being a pattern to them that might help trick the riddle’s recipient. 


H already pointed out many interesting points of analysis about this riddle. Like H, I find it significant that the point of the riddle seems to be to fool the riddle recipient into forgetting the beginning of the riddle, leading them to give an incorrect answer that would seem logical to the sequence of names. I personally think that the desire to trick someone using this riddle ties in closely with the elementary setting in which H originally heard it. As has been discussed, much of children’s folklore stems from trying to establish a sense of authority in a world in which children have very little. By knowing the answer to this riddle, children may temporarily hold authority over a peer or adult who doesn’t. It is also worth noting that knowing the riddle or a similarly structured one creates an in-group; those children who have been tricked by the riddle can then go on to trick others. By learning the structure of the riddle, the recipient also learns to pay closer attention and look for important details in future riddles or logic puzzles.

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.

Taiwanese Joke: Double Naming and Chickens

Nationality: Taiwanese
Primary Language: Mandarin
Age: 50
Occupation: Housewife
Residence: Taipei, Taiwan
Performance Date: 16 February 2024

Tags: joke, Taiwanese, chickens, double meaning, toilet humor


There was once a man who visited Taiwan for the first time to improve his conversational Mandarin speaking skills. He had heard from his Taiwanese friends that Taiwanese people often like to ‘double say’ (repeat) nouns- for example, ‘喝水水’ = ‘drink water water’, ‘吃飯飯’ = eat food food, ‘大狗狗‘ = ‘big dog dog’.

To attempt to fit in to local customs, the man wanted to try ‘double saying’ a noun. As he was thinking, he saw a small chicken crossing a road. He pointed at the small chicken and loudly declared:

“小雞雞!” (“small chicken chicken”)

After he said this, every local around him burst out laughing. Confused and embarrassed, he hastily called his Taiwanese friend and recounted the experience, demanding an explanation. The Taiwanese friend burst out laughing and explained:

” ‘雞雞’ (chicken chicken) means ‘penis’. “


T is a born and raised Taiwanese local, and apparently this is a pretty popular (though crass) joke to tell children, which she did in my youth when we ate chicken one day. Growing up learning Mandarin from T, I realized we both subconsciously also used the ‘double noun’ habit, though it’s mainly used for children learning Mandarin growing up as it can seem cute in a way, in a singsong-ish manner.


Thinking back on the joke, there may or may not be a connection to the English interpretation of the word ‘cock’ as both a word relating to ‘chicken’ and ‘penis’, so maybe dick jokes can help connect the world.