Tag Archives: idiom

Ren Shan Ren Hai

AW is a 19 year old college student. She is an undergraduate computer science major and is from Los Angeles County. She is Chinese American and has lived in LA all of her life.

Context: AW is a good friend of mine, so we sat down after dinner to discuss folklore she picked up across her life.

Transcript:

AW: There is one saying that my parents say all the time. It goes:

人山人海

Translation: Ren Shan Ren Hai

English Translation: People mountain people see

Literal Translation: There are so many people here.

AW: The words don’t make sense but when you say it it just means, “woah there is a crap ton of people here”. It can vary from place to place though, like how in the US there are phrases for heavy rain and such.

Collector: Is that a phrase you use personally?

AW: Only when I’m speaking Mandarin and am with my parents and family friends.

Thoughts/Analysis: This idiom is a form of folk speech that Chinese people use to reference large crowds. It is similar to “long time no see”. It shows how folklore is directly linked to language in which the structure is similar. It also shows how language is used to connect folklore in different countries like how language is used to link India and Europe. I typically do not notice how people in America use expressions with the same structure and did not realize it was a universal thing because language changes sentence structure. I have found however that it is universal that many expressions use the natural environment as an idiom or use an idiom to express the natural environment (like rain).

For other variations of Chinese Idioms regarding mountains or seas, see:

Rapatan, N. (2013, May 14). Yu gong yi shan idiom. USC Digital Folklore Archives. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from http://folklore.usc.edu/yu-gong-yi-shan-idiom/

“In bocca al lupo” – Italian Idiomatic Phrase

Description of Informant

AG (18) is an Italian-American dual citizen and high school student from Berkeley, CA. At home, she speaks primarily Italian, and spends her summers in Italy.

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Phrase

Original Text: In bocca al lupo.

Phonetic: N/A

Transliteration: Into the mouth of the wolf.

Free Translation: [See Collector’s Reflection]

Responses: (1) Che crepi. (2) Crepi il lupo! (3) Crepi.

Context of Use

The idiomatic phrase is the Italian equivalent of “break a leg.” However, unlike its English counterpart, in bocca al lupo solicits a response, which may be delivered in several different ways. The phrase is used in place of “good luck” when one is entering a situation they have prepared for (e.g. performance, interview, examination, etc.)— rather than luck, you are wishing someone skill.

Context of Interview

The informant, AG, sits in the kitchen with her father and the collector, BK, her step-brother. Text spoken in Italian is italicized, but not translated.

Interview

BK: So tell me about the saying.

AG: Umm so basically when someone has an event, or a test they need to take. Instead of saying “good luck,” which is buena fortuna, in Italy you would say “in bocca al lupo.” Which is, literally translated, “in the mouth of the wolf.” And I don’t know if it has something to do with, like, Little Red Riding Hood or wherever they got it from. But then, the person taking the test, or who got good luck’ed, they respond “che crepi.” Which means like, uhh, how would you translate che crepi? Like, “I hope he dies” or “that he dies”…

BK: Who is “he”?

AG: The wolf. Yeah, that the wolf dies. It’s not super translatable.

BK: What is the appropriate context for this phrase?

AG: I think anytime someone in English would say “break a leg.” Like if I have a dance performance, my mom wouldn’t say “good luck” because it’s not luck for me, I don’t need luck to succeed, I need, you know, to do well, myself. And so she would say “in bocca al lupo” instead.

Collector’s Reflection

Into the mouth of the wolf represents plunging into danger. Often, though, this does not mean physical or life-threatening danger. In the expression’s day-to-day use, danger means the risk of failing a social performance (e.g. interview, recital, examination). The response of crepi indicates the receiver’s acceptance of the wish of strong performance, and their own hopes of success. Killing the wolf is overcoming the obstacle/challenge successfully.

The strong distinction between a wish of luck versus a wish of skill is fascinating. Luck, for Italians, is reserved for moments where circumstances are out of one’s hands (e.g. acts of God). Skill is up to the individual and their preparation. In English, you will often hear the skill-based equivalent, “break a leg,” spoken in the same breath as “good luck.” Though English speakers may understand the difference between luck and skill, their idioms conflate the concepts, while Italian speakers are very strict in their separation.

“The Value of Hard Work”

Context & Analysis

The subject and I were eating lunch together and I asked him to tell me about any traditions or sayings he remembers from his family. The subject told me he doesn’t have a strong connection with his parents, but that in particular, his parents have always emphasized the value of hard work. The subject stated that the proverb is a traditional Chinese proverb, but provided me with a rough summary as he remembered his parents telling him. After doing some research, the story comes from a Chinese idiom, “Shòu zhū dài tù”, or “Watching a tree stump, waiting for rabbits” (visiontimes.com). Additionally, the original idiom does not mention the farmer himself dying, so this could possibly be an alternative ending that the subject’s parents told him for extra emphasis. This seems like a rather graphic story to tell to a young child, but the proverb and the idiom it originates from highlights the reliability of hard work instead of luck. (Source url: http://www.visiontimes.com/2013/11/18/the-chinese-idiom-watching-a-tree-stump-waiting-for-rabbits.html)

Main Piece

“The jist of the proverb is about a farmer who one day luckily manages to catch a rabbit that runs head first into a tree. So instead of farming or working hard, he decides to sit by the tree every day and wait for more rabbits to run into the tree. Of course that never happens because that’s only a really lucky occurrence, so he starves and dies.”   

Arroz con Mango

Cuban culture in general is incredibly vibrant and colorful. With recent tourism to Cuba rising, foreigners often underestimate how vibrant the buildings, cars, and clothes are in Cuba. And this powerful expression also transfers over into language and proverbs. When visiting home recently, my aunt and grandmother came over to share common Cuban vernacular with me.

One idiom is: “Arroz con Mango”. Phonetically, it’s easy to pronounce since it utilizes the same Latin alphabet. It’s literal translation is “Rice with Mango”. Although it may sound like a delicious Cuban delicacy, it’s actually shorthand for describing “a terrible mess.” It’s such a specific description that if said in the right way many Cubans could be laughing up a storm. My aunt was cracking up as she remembered the phrase, suddenly taken back to many memories of growing up in the Cuban section of San Juan, Puerto Rico. So if something is chaotic or messy, and it can be tied to metaphorical things too like relationships, then it could be “Arroz con Mango”.

Mexican Elderly Idiom

“The second one is, umm… More knows the devil, because he’s old, than to be a devil. Do you want me to tell you in Spanish? ‘Mas el diablo por viejo que por diablo.’ ”

 

And in what context would you say that? Like, what would you say that in reference to?

 

“Umm, that, uhh, we need to pay attention to the old people. That the old people is, is they know the way and we need to listen to them.”

 

Analysis: Another short and sweet proverb, this one celebrates old age in a very tongue-in-cheek sort of way. The proverb proclaims that the Devil knows more about being the Devil from simply living into old age than by being the Devil in the first place. In other words, this proverb would seem to reveal that, in rural Mexican culture, learned wisdom gleaned through experience is superior to natural-born intellect. This would suggest a deference to rural elders and a suspicion of up-and-comer types in the informant’s culture.