Tag Archives: english

British Celebration of Guy Fawkes Night

--Informant Info--
Nationality: British European
Age: 56
Occupation: High School Substitute Teacher
Residence: Sherman Oaks, California
Date of Performance/Collection: March 20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Interviewer: So why do you celebrate Guy Fawkes Night?

Informant: It was a big part of my childhood. I remember going to Bonfire Night Parties. So the month prior to the 5th of November, the actual date, families and friends would gather old furniture and sweep up leaves, a lot of fallen leaves, and anything else that could be burned. And we would stack it into a huge bonfire. And then on the night of the 5th of November the community would come together and there would be fireworks and we would light the bonfire. But also during the month prior children would build a ‘Guy’ and a ‘Guy’ consisted of old clothes, that were stitched or pinned together and stuffed with newspaper and leaves to resemble a person. The ‘Guy’. Guy Fawkes. This ‘Guy’ would be carried around the community in a wheelbarrow or old pram, going door to door begging for pennies. “Penny for the Guy”. These children would then take these pennies and purchase fireworks.

Interviewer: That’s kind of irresponsible.

Informant: I know! I was wuss and I hated loud fireworks, so I always purchased sparklers. There was always traditional food served at bonfire night parties: mugs of soup, oxtail, or tomato soup, and sticky Parkin Cake (Ginger cake). Adults always lit the fireworks and the bonfire, but you could throw things on the fire, basically we were pyromaniacs for a night and it was socially acceptable. Another thing that was a tradition, the dummy you made, you would always put a mask on it of a political figure. Typically one you disliked. Part of my memory of the thing, is that you stood as close as you could to the fire so your face was almost blistering and your back was wet and freezing, cuz this is England! Guy Fawkes night was THE THING for us, Halloween was ‘eh’ but Bonfire Night was it, cuz it had fire!

Context: An earlier conversation that was discussing a different English Tradition made my informant remember this part of her childhood.

Background: The informant learned the tradition from her community, there was no one person who taught her about it. She enjoys it because it’s fun. “It only gets remembered if it’s fun”. To her it’s a little “encapsulated perfection” part of her childhood and it captured what it was like to grow up in rural England.

Thoughts: It sounds like a very interesting holiday, the informant seemed to go back to the high energy and joy of that holiday. I personally wish to be able to go to her home town to see this tradition myself.

The Joke A Dog with No Nose

--Informant Info--
Nationality: British European
Age: 79
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Sherman Oaks, California
Date of Performance/Collection: March 22, 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: It’s a very short joke.

Interviewer: That’s perfectly fine. Just tell it how you know it.

Informant: Okay. A dog with no nose, how does he smell? — Terrible!

Interviewer: You don’t wait for someone to ask how?

Informant: Not usually. Usually everyone knows the punchline so we all say it together.

Informant: Who’s the we? Where did you learn this?

Informant: Well I think I learned it from my father, he was always making silly jokes like that. Everyone learned it so quickly that it’s a bit hard to say. I remember hearing it during a big party at a small house. It must have been a Sunday because Sunday was when you went to see your family. I remember that because it was something everyone used to get hysterical about, everyone would roll about laughing.

Background: The informant believes she first heard this joke from family. She was not sure if she heard it from her father or older brother who was in the army. They were very close so it’s difficult for her to say who came up with it first, or if they heard it from someone else.

Context: I was asking my informant to recount things she remembered from her childhood and she remembered a few songs and this joke specifically.

Thoughts: It appears to be more of an inside joke but every British person I’ve interacted with appears to know it, but they always play along if they’re asked. It is probably incredibly popular because it’s an easy joke for children to remember and is incredibly easy for them to share to other kids.

The Tale of Lady Godiva

--Informant Info--
Nationality: British European
Age: 79
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Sherman Oaks, California
Date of Performance/Collection: April 27, 2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: My parents used to tell me the story of Lady Godiva. She rode a horse naked through Coventry in I believe some time around 1066. They told me she did it because her husband was over taxing the peasants of Coventry and she begged her husband to lower the rents and the taxes. He said he would grant her request if she was willing to strip naked and ride through the town on a horse. Which of course, she did. I always thought he must have felt right silly about agreeing to that. When he realized she was going to do it, he ordered all the towns people to go inside and to not look. That’s where a Peeping Tom comes from. This chap Tom peeked out his window and saw her and was struck blind and later died.

Background: My informant heard this story from her mother when she was a child growing up in Birmingham, 20 Miles from Coventry.

Context: My informant started sharing the information while I was finishing up collecting another piece of information regarding The Beast of Bodmin Moor.

Thoughts: An interesting short story to be sure, and I suppose it can be considered female empowerment through using one’s body to send a message. However, I don’t know if a child would get that idea unless explained thoroughly to them.

Dinner Train Song

--Informant Info--
Nationality: English
Age: 22
Occupation: Barista
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/2/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):


It took some effort to get my informant, who immigrated from England at 13, to remember some examples of English folklore. I prompted him by asking for bedtime stories or lullabies from his childhood.

Main Piece

So, when I was little, my English grandmother would sing me and my brother Tate this song before bedtime, or whenever we pestered her to do it. Um… I don’t know where she learned it. Basically you, you say the names of various… culinary treats, and you gradually speed up in a rhythmic way as you say each item, um, like a locomotive carrying on — gathering steam.

Coffee, coffee

Cheese and biscuits, cheese and biscuits

Fruit and custard, fruit and custard

Fish ‘n’ chips, fish ‘n’ chips

(And then, imitating steam whistle, going up in pitch)



With some digging, I was able to find an account of this song on a British teaching website, and some performances on YouTube. My informant did not know where or when his grandmother had learned the song, but commenters on the above website remembered singing it at Bible camp in the 1960s and hearing it on a 78 rpm record in the 1940s. I also found a slightly different version of this chant on a website for the Australian Joey Scouts group. It is difficult to determine the precise origin of this piece, but it is clear that although I had never encountered it, it has been around since the early 20th century and has made its way around the world.

You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 83
Occupation: Retired English Teacher
Residence: San Francisco, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: March 21, 2015
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: You can’t see the forest for the trees.

The informant (my grandmother) was born and raised in Texas. She spent many years moving from place to place across the world with her husband, a banker, before settling in Connecticut long enough to work as an English teacher at the Greenwich Country Day School. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

The informant told me that she told this proverb to her students when they failed to see the bigger picture of her class as a whole. When students complained that endless grammar worksheets were “boring,” she pointed out that they were looking at only a tree in the larger forest; grammar worksheets were an important part of building a greater ecosystem of knowledge of the English language.

This proverb appears in John Heywood’s 1546 collection of proverbs.

Citation: Heywood, John, and Julian Sharman. The Proverbs of John Heywood. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1874. Print.

“Last one there is a rotten egg!”

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese-American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Date of Performance/Collection: Apr 2007
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Vietnamese

The informant first heard this when he was in elementary school, about age six or seven, while attending the after school day care with twenty or so other students.  After school the students would be walking when one of them would spot the babysitter’s car and would yell, “Last one there is a rotten egg!”  All of the students then sprint to the car and upon reaching it, touch a doorknob or any part of the car.  The last student to touch the car is the “rotten egg” and is labeled the “rotten egg” for that round.  Nothing in particular happens to the rotten egg, but the student is singled out as the slowest one.  This is similar to the game “Duck, duck, goose” where there is a mushpot where the students who are too slow to catch their goose have to sit until someone can replace them.  The informant no longer plays this game, but believes it to be a good form of entertainment for kids.

Though it is a game played among children, it is often the parents or guardians who first introduce the game to their kids.  However, it is very rare that you can find a parent playing this game with their child, since the advantages of being an adult are obvious and the game would be unfair.  The informant is good with children and often uses this game to bring children together to play, and to keep them attracted to a focal point so that they will stay together in one group and not cause too much trouble by becoming out of hand.  This is also a useful tactic for babysitters and day care personnel as well.  The idea of a rotten egg probably came from the idea that nobody wants to be something smelly like a rotten egg, so they want to win the game.

Chinese-English Spider Joke

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 53
Occupation: CEO of an electronics company
Residence: California
Date of Performance/Collection: December, 17, 2011
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English, Vietnamese, Cantonese

蜘蛛是什么颜色? 白色. 是白的.
Translated: What color is a spider? White. It is white.

This joke was heard at a Christmas party for a company that was predominantly made up of Chinese people.  This joke requires an understanding of both English and Chinese in order to fully understand the punch line.  At first, the question seems relatively easy as it is just asking the audience what color is a spider.  Audience members tended to yell out colors such as black or brown.  At this point, the informant would yell out “白色” (pronounced “bai se”), which means white in Chinese.  Then after hearing the confusions from the audience members, the informant would say, “是白的” (“It is white” in Engllish), which is pronounced, “Sh bai de.”  As an English speaker can see, that particular phrase sounds like the word “spider.”

My informant told me that he heard this joke first when he was learning English after coming toAmerica.  He told me that he felt a sense of accomplishment when he was able to understand the punch line as it marked his achievement in English comprehension.  For me, this poem is a symbol for the blending of English/American and Chinese culture since the two respective languages are necessary for this joke.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Mexican-American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Downey California
Date of Performance/Collection: December 2006
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”


My informant who is currently a first-year college student first heard this proverb in his elementary school in Downey, CA from his teacher in third grade.  There had been a problem with certain kids being targets for bullies in class.  The teacher decided to address this issue to the class.  She told everyone to remember that even though physical pain cannot be helped, you can always choose how to take words from others.  The only way words have power is when the person allows them to hurt him or her.

This proverb is not usually used on adults but mostly on children.  I do not think this proverb can apply to adults as well because the circumstances are different.  When children taunt, the taunting consists of silly rhymes, sticking out the tongue and such whereas when adults exchange harsh words with each other, those words are personal and have the ability to hit someone at a vulnerable spot.  Parents and teachers teach young children about not allowing words to hurt them because many children tend to pick on others not for any legitimate reasons of dislike but from mere prejudice.  I believe this proverb can apply very well to children but not to adults.

What comes around goes around.

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Romanian-American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Pasadena, California
Date of Performance/Collection: February 2007
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

“What comes around goes around.”


My informant first heard this proverb actually told to him a couple of years ago when he was sixteen years old.  He had been having fun while two-timing two girls, but eventually they found out about his infidelity.  A few months later after he cut his ties with both girls, he wanted to start fresh and leave that incident behind him.  When he was introduced to another girl who was from Fullerton, CA through a friend, he was extremely smitten with her.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, he had become a notorious topic among the girls.  The girl completely ignored him and appeared disinterested.  His friend later that night told Andrew that she already had heard the rumors about him and had said about him, “What comes around goes around.”  She had no guilt in snubbing him because he deserved it for his past wrongdoing.

This idea of karma is interesting because people feel relieved from the sense of justice.  Your transgressions will always come back to haunt you.  I do believe that what goes around comes around.  Conversely if you do beneficial activities, your goodness will somehow be rewarded later.  I believe this proverb has the intention of promoting good behavior while discouraging bad behavior.  I hear this proverb often in dealings with romantic relationships; when someone breaks another’s heart, that someone is bound to have his or her heart broken, too.  I tie in this proverb closely with another one: “What goes up must come down.”  Both advise that your actions have consequences in the future.

Annotation: This proverb is the title of the popular song by American singer Justin Timberlake, “What Comes Around Goes Around.”

Bayberry Candle

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 51
Residence: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2007
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

My Mother said that growing up, her mother would always burn a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve for good luck and that they would also burn it on New Years Day for good luck. It would burn the entire day until it the wax ran out.

According to my mother, this tradition comes from England, and then was continued as a New England tradition during colonial times. My mother told me that her mother’s side was English, and had the last name of Trasp, which is where the tradition of burning the candle came from in her family. She was not sure why it was a bayberry candle was burned, however.

My mother said that it wasn’t a tradition to make the candle, they usually just bought it. But the candle comes from the wax scraped off the berries of the bayberry shrub, and the bayberry plant is found in both Europe and North America.

This is interesting because in earlier colonial times the bayberry wax would be collected, perhaps because the animal fat used to make candles was scarce. Now the candles are made from other materials, with the bayberry scent, and burned for the sake of tradition.

The interesting thing that I found was that there were many traditional things that my mother did for good luck that came from different regions, and the bayberry candle was just one of them. There were multiple traditions around the holidays and my mother said they did them all, from burning a bayberry candle to a traditional German New Year’s dinner.