HB is an American woman who has had 30 years of experience working in the theater industry, specifically in tech, props and production management.
When an actor in a stage play is “really overacting and they’re playing to the back of the house”, one would say that they’re “chewing the scenery”. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. If the role calls for that amount of energy, then it’d be a positive thing, but “generally it’s kind of negative”.
“That scene was exhausting to watch, it was a scenery-chewing performance.”
“He’ll be picking scenery out of his teeth for days”
The actual meaning of this saying is a criticism of actors that don’t take realism into account during their performances and just focus on expressing as much emotion as possible. Especially in theater performances, it’s common for actors to need more energy in their acting since they have to portray to audience members that are seated far away from them, but this saying seems to acknowledge some threshold for the accepted amount of exaggeration in acting. This showcases the need and appreciation for realism, or at least a balance between realism and emoting within a performance.
The imagery of the saying also suggests a dynamic between actors and stage hands. If a performer’s acting “chews up the scenery” or, in other words, destroys the stage, and is seen as a negative thing, then it’s possible that there is a need for respect between actors and those who work backstage. If an actor’s performance is overwhelming in action, it’s possible that the audience would overlook the hard work of the stage hands in making the image on stage come to life, which would make the stage hands upset.
Context: EC is a white graduate student at USC studying linguistics. Up until attending USC, she lived in Pasadena, California. That being said, her dad is from Iowa, and her mom is from Indiana. I asked EC if there were any sayings that she learned as a kid from her family or community, and she responded with this folk saying. The word is used in casual conversation as an exclamation.
Text: One is from my dad’s side, which I always thought of is one word but apparently it’s two words, and it’s called uuf da. It comes from I think Norway or Scandinavia because my dad’s grandfather was from Sweden. It’s funny because my mom says phew, so when I was little I combined then, so now I say phewfda. Uff da, it’s kind of like… if you go to Minnesota, there will be merchandise with uff da on it because there are so many Scandinavian people in Minnesota. Basically uff da, you just kind of say it when something not big has happened. But it’s like “oh man uff da, that was really hard.” It doesn’t have a negative context, but you wouldn’t say “uff da that was so exciting!” It’s always like “ugh, uff da, that was a difficult test,” or “uff da, that was a workout.” It’s never for anything super bad, or at least how my family uses it, and honestly I’m not really sure what it translates to, but I think it’s one of those things like “ugh.”
Thoughts/Analysis: From what I can gather, there’s no direct translation for uff da: it’s onomatopoeia like “oof” in English. It’s really an exclamation to express and release tension. Being onomatopoeia, different languages have different spellings for similar noises. I’ve used oof before, but it seems as though uff da is very specific to Scandinavians and those from that ancestry. EC’s combination of phew and uff da is especially interesting, exemplifying how the blending of cultures can impact the folklore that people spread. She’s the first to use it in her family, but as she ages and has children, her new version may spread as a fusion: an example of polygenesis in real time.
Context: CR is a black student at USC, currently a sophomore. They and their family are originally from Houston. The informant told me about their experience after class while we were discussing the pieces of folklore we’d picked up during our lives. The saying they talked about would normally be performed by their father whenever they and their siblings hit their heads.
Text: “Okay so like growing up my… like me and my siblings would always like hit our heads like maybe on the top of our bunk beds or the roof of a car or something, and my dad would always say like “Oh no! Like I hit my head on a piece of cornbread!” And then we would just laugh instead of cry. And it was just a way that he would get us to be playful and laugh instead of focus on our pain. And he would always model it for us too. Yeah, just “I hit my head on a piece of cornbread.” There’s very much a rhythmic element to it and a rhyme, like if you say it the wrong way, it won’t be right.
“I hit my head on a piece of cornbread.”
Thoughts/Analysis: I’ve never heard of “I hit my head on a piece of cornbread,” but I’ve encountered similar sayings across my life. It makes me think of the Spanish saying sana sana, colita de rana which is also used to pacify kids after they get hurt. Soothing children after injury seems to unite a lot of childhood sayings. After all, the experience is universal. In this specific instance, though, part of the comforting nature of the saying seems to lie in its humor: the imagery of hitting one’s head on a piece of cornbread—something soft and spongy—versus whatever one hits their head on, seems to create dissonance and a disconnect from their current reality of pain.
Informant KS is a 19 year-old USC freshman from San Jose, California. The informant participated in the Speech and Debate program during all four years of high school under the National Speech and Debate Association. The event which this technique is referring to is policy debate, where teams of two students each debate a policy proposal made by one team.
KS: “Spreading is a portmanteau of ‘speed reading.’ It’s a technique developed fairly recently, but it’s very widespread in high school and college policy debate tournaments. Basically, in the first two speeches of the debate, you typically just read off your pre-written evidence. What people found out is, you can read a lot more evidence in your 6 minute speech if you read the evidence at an insane pace, then send out the documents so that people can read the evidence along with you, which they can read a lot faster than they can hear. You read the evidence at rates of 300-400 words per minute. You would slow down for the part you have written yourself, and you would speed up when you have written someone else’s words. A very common habit is people doing incredibly sharp breaths when they’re speed reading. So it’s become a joke that people breathe that way when they’re spreading. The most common reaction for a normal person is ‘How the heck is anyone understanding what’s going on?’ Basically, in college level debate, the judges are all other previous debaters or coaches. So they have all also trained how to understand spreading, and so therefore, only the people within the debate can actually understand the debate. The interesting thing about spreading is that it locks debate to a certain demographic to watch. Historically, debate has been focused on rhetorical abilities and public speaking; however, spreading has indicated a shift away from learning how to speak in public towards learning how to think critically and respond to complicated arguments and many arguments in a short amount of time.”
The National Speech and Debate Association was founded in 1925. Since then, the organization developed its own folklore among its participants, such as their own slang terms and techniques. The term “spreading” and its respective practice is one which reflects the growing competitiveness of academics in the United States, as it subverts the classical values of debating — rhetorical skill and public speaking, according to Keshav — in order to win the most points during the debate. Along with the growing competitiveness of academics and the NSDA is the growing inaccessibility of speech and debate: some schools lack the funding and resources to develop their own speech and debate programs; with increasingly complex and specialized skills such as spreading, the barrier of entry grows higher and higher. Additionally, the proliferation of spreading reflects the growth of a common culture amongst the NSDA. The organization is old enough that former participants return as judges and coaches to pass down the technique of spreading as coaches or adequately understand spreading as judges. The folklore surrounding spreading “spreads” further, into common jokes, such as the tendency for debaters to take sharp breaths during their speeches.
Background: Y is a 21-year-old college student from Taiwan who is navigating her new life in Los Angeles, California. Having grown up in and gone to school in Taiwan, she is incredibly familiar with Taiwanese folklore and culture.
Context: This is a proverb that Y’s parents would always say to her to remind her of the importance of making friends and networking. It refers to when you are out of your parents protection and when you must rely on friends to give you a helpful hand. It emphasizes the importance and benefits of having close friends.
Analysis: This proverb highlights the importance of friendship and having a large safety net in Taiwanese culture. It highlights the transition from living with your parents to expanding your horizons in the real world amongst working adults. Contrasted with American culture, where young adults are expected to fend for themselves once leaving their parents’ protection, Taiwanese culture values building your network before the jump into adulthood. Once you step out of the familial nest, you are expected to be independent of your parents yet not entirely independent of your peers. Overall, it is a proverb highlighting the importance of community and fraternity among peers when transitioning from one stage of life to the next.