Tag Archives: folk metaphor

“When the tiger used to smoke” (호랑이 담배피던 시절)

Main Piece : 

“호랑이 담배피던 시절”

Original Script : 호랑이 담배피던 시절

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Horangee dambae pidun shijul

Transliteration : When the tiger used to smoke

Full Translation : Long, long time ago… 

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.  

S : So ‘호랑이가 담배피던 시절’ is one of the most famous opening lines of Korean folk stories. The storyteller, or whoever narrates the story would start off with this opening sentence and continue telling the first chapter of the story. It is similar to how Disney movies start with “once upon a time..”. They never identify the exact year of what’s taking place, but only hints that it is a very long time ago. 

E : Is the author for this opening line known?

S : I don’t think so. I’m not an expert on this, but because this is a very widely used opening in countless folk stories, I think it is unknown and will be hard to find who started this. I don’t think the author for “once upon a time” is known too. I’d be surprised if the author is known. 

Analysis :

I think this particular folktale opening reflects a very Korean aspect as they introduce the tiger out of all animals. Tiger has been a national animal of Korea for a very long time and a lot of the ancient folk drawings or cultures include, or is related to tigers. Tigers in Korean folklore hold a great importance and has been used in various occasions such as the Olympic mascot. Also, when we explain smoke, it doesn’t mean Western cigarettes, but it is most likely believed to be ‘곰방대(Gombangdae)’, which is a traditional smoking device of Korea made out of wood and metal. This opening lets the readers imagine a tiger, sitting in his house like a human, and smoking, using Gombangdae. The triggering of the imagination of the readers gives off a mystical feeling to open the scene. 

This article highlights how Korea used a white tiger as a mascot for their 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and what tiger means in their culture.

The OJ Simpson Metaphor

The informant (A.H.) comes from a Black Christian family. A.H. does not identify with Christianity.

Now well retired from the game at 54 years old, A.H. played football in the NFL from 1983 to 1987; first drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, then transferred to the Seattle Seahawks, and finally the San Francisco 49ers. Since then he has coached youth football teams, and works now as a financial analyst. A.H. was over house for dinner one Monday evening, and after our meal I interviewed him for football specific occupational folklore. I asked about the superstitions, traditions, and legends A.H. had come across during his career as a professional player.

A.H.: “I remember growing up I was a huge OJ Simpson fan. I think every kid my age that grew up in my area that wanted to be a running back wanted to be OJ. And I remember reading in an article somewhere that he never ate before games. He had said somewhere that he wanted to know what it was like to be hungry, and he thought that it would transfer over into games. I think I might have been in high-school when I read that. It affected the way that I ate, like I would never eat the night before the game or morning before the game. The interesting thing is when I coached, I passed that on to the players that I used to coach. He said something like, if you didn’t eat it would make you like a hungry dog. You would play better. Every guy has his superstition before the game… So I saw one of the kids on Facebook that I used to coach… A lot of those kids are coaches, and they’re passing that stuff on now.”

I found A.H.’s story compelling, because what began as Simpson’s individual superstition was perpetuated by his success, and eventually A.H.’s success. As seen with the OJ Simpson metaphor, a young generation of football players dons the occupational superstitions of their predecessors as a rite of passage in the hopes to achieve similar success on the field. A.H. was well spoken, and seemed to enjoy revisiting memories of his time in the game. He was equally, if not more enthusiastic about the legacy he left behind as a coach.
Not only does A.H.’s story provide an occupational superstition, but also a new interpretation of a popular metaphor. Specifically, in English speech, ‘hunger’ serves as a metaphor for desire or motivation. In this particular superstition, the hunger metaphor is associated with the desire to win the game. For a popular example of the hunger used as a metaphor for motivation, see Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games.

Taking someone to the Squash Courts


At the boarding school Cate, “taking someone to the squash courts” meant you were going to hook up with someone. Not that people take others to the squash courts to hook up with, but once upon a time people did that. At least that’s what people say.

Informant & Context:

My informant for this piece is a student at the University of Southern California who graduated from this boarding school (Cate). His knowledge of this phrase dates back between 3 and 11 years ago, though it is reasonable that it has existed for longer. The squash courts at the school were a very secluded and private place.


American culture has a huge phobia of sexuality—it is extremely taboo. Whereas in other cultures that coveted spot is taken by violence, American children are taught to hide their sexuality. As a result, different pockets of the country choose to make euphemisms to describe the act, acknowledging it while at the same time making it a more speakable act. In my opinion is essentially equates to using “He who shall not be named” in place of Voldemort (in reference to Harry Potter). Even hook up is a vague term as it implies a consenting, physical act between two individuals, but does not describe the nature or extremity of the act. I believe that the term “hook up” is so colloquial as slang for engaging in an act of intimacy that it has become necessary for teenagers to water the phrase down further, so as not to make themselves feel dirty while talking about the act.

pakistani slang

Context: The informant is a 30 year old married Pakistani schoolteacher and mother. She jokingly asked her cousin, who was visiting America, to buy her a store’s entire stock of a certain makeup product (that had the number 420 in its name) when she came back, and the cousin replied, you are a 420. When questioned about the meaning of this phrase, the informant laughed and replied that it was slang for a thief or fraud. Questioned further, she revealed that the term comes from the Pakistani penal code, in which “302 is for murder criminals and 420 is for thieves–like they say in the movies, a 201 is going down or something.”

Analysis: This particular slang phrase is interesting in that the origin is a written piece of work–and not even something that is easily accessible to most laypeople, like a storybook or a children’s movie, but the very laws of the country, which are, no doubt, as convoluted and verbose as those of any in the US. However, these codes have made their way, either through the jargon of lawmakers and law enforcement officials, or through popular movies that use “authentic” police jargon in their police scenes, to the laypeople who now use it, not to actually accuse or apprehend anyone, but to jokingly call out each others’ social vices. The act of exaggerating a little social or moral error into something criminalizable by the national penal code may be a way of enforcing social norms while still maintaining social relationships.

I’m so hungry I could eat a corpse and chase the mourners

Informant: “I’m so hungry I could eat a corpse and chase the mourners.”


The informant is a young man who comes from suburban Mission Hills, San Diego and describes himself as relatively “quiet and introverted” and “nerdy” as well as very involved in politics. The informant is a sophomore neuroscience major at USC and works in a neuroscience image and understanding lab, which focused on visual research.

The informant heard this metaphor when he was about 14 years old as a freshman in high school from a photography teacher. The informant described this teacher as very eccentric, with a “very unique” and hilarious personality who would say this metaphor in a very happy way. The informant says that because of this, he associates the saying with something positive and likes to use it himself. Additionally, the informant stated, “we had his class right before lunch and sometimes he would say ‘oooh (raised vocal inflection) I’m so hungry, I could eat a corpse and chase the mourners,’ and start hustling down the stairs.” The informant likes this saying because “it is just so bizarre ” and it just stuck in my mind because “he said it a lot and it was said in such a fantastic way.”

The informant does not know exactly what saying is suppose to mean, but the informant thinks that perhaps it means that the speaker is so hungry they could eat a corpse and then would still be hungry enough to chase the mourners to eat them as well. However, the informant also pointed out that “because there are mourners the corpse must still be fresh.” Ultimately, he thinks the saying is just supposed to be bizarre.

This is a somewhat unique variant of the “I’m so hungry I could eat a ___” folk metaphors. Typically the blank is filled with something like a cow, a horse, some other large animal, or a mass quantity of food such as 1000 hamburgers. This variant on the other hand, refers to cannibalism and death. The change in the normal usage is slightly disconcerting and creates a form of death-humor paradox as the metaphor becomes humorous when it is so unexpected.

The Legendary Quarterback from Troy

My informant told me the following legend about a Quarterback from Troy. It parallels the football career of USC quarterback Matt Barkley:

There was once this historic quarterback, came to the land of Troy, meant to do big things, but, little did he know, some things behind the scenes would be changing the outlook of his career. As a result, two of his four years ended without much public knowledge, but his last one, he meant to go out on a good note. He came back for the championship, yet, fate was not on his side. Little injuries added up, the teams on schedule beat him up, so it came to an end as a disappointment – but that wasn’t the only disappointment. When looked upon to go onto the next level, the once highly esteemed most wanted quarterback, had to wait three days, going from a projected top ten to the 98th overall pick, yet, that is just another beginning to the story, as he can do so much more now that he has no expectations, on one looking over his shoulder, let’s see if he can make the Philadelphia eagles fly.

The above story obviously parallels Matt Barkley’s career at USC, chronicling his first two years in relative obscurity, his glorious Junior year, and then his disastrous Senior year, in which, he became injured, and then went late in the NFL draft. However, the tale expresses optimism that he will return to greatness in the NFL, and once again rise to prominence. This piece of folklore is interesting insofar as it takes a piece of recent history and turns it into merchen. My informant claimed this story was in his Fraternity’s book of legends, which is a collection of the great stories in the land of Troy. Apparently, at some point, someone turned the history of Matt Barkley into merchen, and recorded it as such to be passed down as Epic.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

The apple doesn’t fall far away from the tree. This one I remember my dad always saying this to me when I did stupid stuff. It means that if you do something…how should I explain this… it’s like you do something but…I would say, like, if your parents maybe do something and you did the same thing it’s like you’re very similar because, like, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree because the apple belongs to the tree.


This folk metaphor seems to be universal. Stina heard this from her parents growing up just as I heard it from my parents growing up [her in the United States]. The saying suggests that children tend to do the same things, or, in Stina’s case, make the same mistakes as their parents.


A common example of this that I have often heard (interestingly enough) has to do with women who cheat on their husbands or partners. I have frequently heard of a mother who was known for being unfaithful in a relationship, and then her daughter who follows in her footsteps and is unfaithful herself. The saying, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, always followed this scenario.


The above example assumes that the saying carries negative connotations, which is not entirely true. When I was younger and would get good grades in school, my dad would often say that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” in trying to say that he used to get good grades too and that my intelligence comes from him since he is the tree from which I, the apple, fell.

Theatre Occupational Superstition: “Break a Leg!”

Interview Extraction

Informant: “The ‘break a leg’ legend. Do you know that story?  It has nothing to do with fracturing any of the major leg bones.  That in a different usage of the language ‘to break a leg’ is ‘to bend a leg’.  So that gives us two possible origins of why when you want ‘to break a leg’ that the old way of bowing, is that you bend the back leg and then take the bow.  So that ‘to break a leg” means to get a big bow at the end of the show.  And other one is a similar thing on bending, that if coins were tossed on the stage at the end of the show, you would have to then bend down, thus breaking the straight line of the leg in order to pick up the coins that were being tossed on stage.”


The superstition of why you say “break a leg” to an actor is because saying “good luck” brings you bad luck.  There are many different origins of why you would say “break a leg” to an actor, and the phrase also changes based on what country you are in.  For example, in France you would say “Merde” which is French for ‘shit’.  The idea of this is that in wishing for something bad to happen such as the actor breaking their leg, the opposite will take place.

There are may theories behind where this idiom came from, such as the idea that my informant mentioned which suggests that to “break a leg” is a different usage of language that also means ‘to bend a leg’.  I like this theory more than the other origin theories that I have seen in my research, such as the idea that to “break a leg” comes from the production of Shakespheare’s Richard III where actor David Garrick became so consumed with his role as Richard III that he did not realize his leg was broken during the performance.  This legend is popular because it promotes the idea of being so into your performance as an actor that everything else is forgotten, and all that exists is the part you are playing in the world of the play.  This is the kind of mind set that all actors should aspire to accomplish, so it is no wonder that this story has achieved such a high level of fascination in the imagination of people who work in theater, especially actors.

The reason why I like this theory more than the other theories I have seen in my research is that it is very logical.  I have always thought that it is interesting that we say “break a leg” to an actor before they perform, but we do not say this to a designer or crew member before they do their job.  If this legend is the real reason behind why we say “break a leg”, than the reasoning behind not wishing a crew member to “break a leg” makes sense because only actors have historically been the ones that bend their legs to either bow or pick up the coins that had been thrown on stage for a job well done.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Aim High

“Tu no vas a cojer mangos bajito”


You will not grab the mangos when you’re down low.

This metaphor is basically telling the listener that they must aim high in order to reap the benefits of labor. As my informant was a cuban immigrant who was raised by other cuban immigrants from whom she heard this saying from, this metaphor is appropriate in that not only does it make an agricultural reference when the majority of her family were once field workers, but also refers to the ideal that hard work leads to wonderful rewards. According to my informant, this ideal is one of the main reasons they risked life and limb to come to America in the first place.

Gift Horse

“A caballo “regalao” no se le mira el colmillo”


Don’t look at the fang of the horse that’s free.

This cuban proverb is very similar to the American saying “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” It’s very likely that it made its way over to cuba and got muddled along in translation. My informant is a cuban resident who has lived in the U.S. since she was a baby, but has many family members from whom she has picked up sayings such as these from. As the majority of her relatives all have backgrounds as field workers and maids, she informs me that she grew up fairly poor and was taught more or less not to question it when good things came her way lest they be taken away. It was considered bad luck and bad manners to be skeptical of gifts freely given.