She learned the hand motion in Egypt when she was around 5. You would do this gesture to another person when you want to tease them. Originally, when saying it, you would say “To’ ou moot” (“Explode and die”).
For the sake of my informant’s anonymity, I performed the gesture in the video.
When I first saw the gesture, I thought it was playing on the English saying “Rubbing it in,” but then my informant translated the Arabic that accompanies the gesture. I found it hilarious that the speech and gesture have little to do with one another, but it could fall into the nonsense and taunting categories of children’s folklore (discussed by Jay Mechling in Chapter 5 of Elliot Oring’s Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction).*
*Jay Mechling. “Children’s Folklore.” Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, edited by E. Oring, 91-120. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1986.
The informant’s mother used to say this phrase as a playful thing to her children. While my informant generally liked this chant for its nostalgiac purposes, her mother used it in a variety of ways at her childhood summer camp. Though I lacked the mind to gather where her mother was from, my informant is originally from California.
In summer camp, my informant says her mom learned to use the chant as a sort of password in order to get into other campers’ cabins, sit with people during meals, and participate in activities. That being said, I was able to record it during an interview for folklore collection.
I’m sure that my informant has remembered this piece her whole life because it has been reminiscent of her childhood (and because it sounds good rolling off the tongue), but the purpose it served at her mother’s summer camp allows us, as folklorists, to take a deeper look into the social lives of children. In acting as a password as a sort of key to participating in different social settings, the phrase likely created an ingroup and an outgroup which would have contributed to the children’s social hierarchy. It’s important to note, though, that my informant told me kids at this summer camp would all eventually learn the chant–after a few days of confusion followed by some practice. Thus, it must not have simply been a tool for exclusion, but a right of passage into becoming a recognized camp member.
Background: The informant is a man in his late 50s. he grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before moving to upstate New York for college. In his mid 20s, he moved to Southern California and has lived there ever since.
Context: Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 70s, the informant recalls that the suburbs were relatively remote with forests on either side, where children would often play unsupervised. Because the neighborhood was relatively new, most of the adults living there had not grown up in the neighborhood and were not familiar with the local flora and fauna.
“Along the creek, you could just walk along and there would
be, yknow, bushes and things like that. So one of them was stinging nettles, but
we called it “Burn Hazel” when I was a kid. So when you brushed against it, it
felt like you got poison ivy—you’d get bumps, all of a sudden it was incredibly
itchy, but the older kids taught the younger kids…there was another plant
called the “Elephant Ear” plant, and I have no idea what this plant was in
reality, but it had big leaves. If you took that plant and rubbed it on it, it
would cure it. And the parents never knew this, it was passed on from kid to
kid, generation to generation.
Thoughts: Perhaps the most interesting part of this remedy is that the informant can identify the irritant plant “Burn Hazel” by its more commonly known name of Stinging Nettle but has had no luck finding out what “Elephant’s Ear” actually is. The other fascinating element about this herbal remedy is that only children seemed to know about it, since most of their parents did not grow up in the neighborhood where this herbal remedy was located. I wonder if children in the neighborhood nowadays know these tips and tricks—the informant says that much of the forest has been destroyed to build more homes, and his family who remained in town and are raising their children there don’t let them go around unsupervised.
INFORMANT: The informant is my fifteen-year-old sister, who lives in Washington, D.C. We both attended a french-language school until 2014, and this is one of the songs we used to sing as children.
CONTEXT: The informant heard this rhyme from one of her friends in the fourth grade when they started covering Napoleon in their class curriculum. According to her, this is a common rhyme taught to kids by other kids.
Original: “Napoléon est mort à Sainte-Hélène/Son fils Léon lui a crevé l’bidon/On l’a retrouvé assis sur une baleine/En train d’sucer des arêtes de poisson”
Translation: “Napoleon died at Sainte-Helene/His son Leon gutted his belly [informal]/They found him sitting on a whale/Sucking on fish bones”
I think this rhyme is a really interesting example of children’s lore. In general, kids seem to have the instinct to rebel against authority, and this often takes the form of mocking authority figures. In French classrooms, Napoleon is presented to children as somewhat of a legendary figure, so it would make sense that kids would create rhymes about Napoleon, given how venerated he is in French history. As someone who is seen as kind of a silly historical figure outside of France, Napoleon is also a fairly easy target for mockery (he inspired the term “Napoleon Complex,” used to describe people who try to compensate for their short height with overconfidence and ego). I think it also is interesting to observe the difference between what kids’ games and rhymes they learn from adults and what they teach each other; nursery rhymes and tales told and taught to children by adults tend to be more tame, while the things children pass down to other children usually to contain counter-hegemonic themes and seem to be more risqué or vulgar. This is somewhat reflected in the grammar of the rhyme as well. Grammar is an extremely important part of the French curriculum, and is constantly emphasized throughout both primary and secondary school. The use of contractions in the rhyme is another way that it is rebellious.
The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about Enkoye Totit, bedtime story her mother and aunts told her when she was little.
“So, Enkoye Totit is this little monkey character who keeps getting in trouble. It’s a bedtime story that parents tell their kids. It’s like, there’s not really one specific story I can think of about Enkoye Totit, but she’s a character that you can insert in any story. Totit means, like, little monkey. It’s like a diminutive of “tota,” which means monkey. That’s what parents call their kids. Like, it’s a nickname for kids when they’re being silly or misbehaving but not actually doing something that bad. Like if you keep annoying your mom, she’ll call you Tota.”
The fact that “monkey” is both a word referring to the animal and an term of affection for young children in Amharic is interesting, because it allows these stories to become self-insert stories for the children they are told to. Because Enkoye Totit is a stock character and not one from a specific story, it allows parents to plug this character, as an extension of their own children, into many different plots that will be vehicles for lessons they want to teach their kids. This is also reinforced by the characteristics of a monkey–small, mischievous, intelligent, inquisitive–most of which are also applicable to children. At the same time, because there are actual monkeys in Ethiopia, this fact might be less obvious to Ethiopian children, since the stories are based on a monkey that they could actually encounter, but because both my cousin and I were raised in the United States where monkeys do not live in nature, the metaphorical nature of these stories becomes more apparent.