Tag Archives: proverbs

A Hair Past a Freckle


“When someone asks you the time and you don’t know what time it is because you’re not wearing a watch or don’t have your phone, my family always goes ‘Oh, it’s a hair past a freckle’ or ‘A freckle past a hair’. You use the two interchangeably just depending on whatever mood you’re in.”


OA is a 21-year-old American student at USC. She grew up in Washington. I asked her about any proverbs she knew of or sayings that were common to her. This proverb is used as a joke. “It’s something my dad did because his dad did it.”


Family folklore is special because it identifies people who are in the group (your family), and those who are out of the group easily. Things that might not seem funny to outsiders could be incredibly funny to your family, or vice versa. These things can develop from specific moments, or their origins can be more fluid. My friend mentioned that this was something she says to her friends now as well, which shows that even folklore that originates as family-specific has the capacity to grow beyond families and enter into a more widespread usage. This specific proverb seems to be related to “it’s time for you to get a watch,” as it pokes fun at the person for not knowing the time and highlights our society’s reliance on time. Timeliness is very important in the United States, whereas in other cultures being on time isn’t as important. So, when someone doesn’t have a watch or isn’t aware of what time it is, people make fun of them because they should know what time it is in a society where time is everything. 

Did you see the camel? No you did not!


This is a proverb that is commonly used among the family and friends of my informant. My informant is a coworker from my job. She immigrated to the United States from Tehran, the capital of Iran, when she was 16 years old and has a lot of family here that she enjoys continuing her traditions with.

  • “šotor didi? nadidi,” or “شتر دیدی؟ ندیدی”
    • Transliterated proverb:
      • “Did you see the camel? No you did not!”
    • Full translation: This maxim is essentially indicating that if you see something that is obvious that you were not meant or supposed to see, then you should act as if you didn’t see it. Put in other words, its true meaning is along the lines of, “you see nothing, you hear nothing.”
    • Explanation by my coworker: “So lets say you’re trying to hide someone from knowing something that they see or hear. We use a camel in this maxim because it’s a large animal and easy to spot, obvious basically, just like something that you may have just seen or heard. So basically, you obviously saw or heard something that is as obvious as a camel, but you’re making the concious decision to hide that information.”

Thoughts: I thought it was really interesting that a camel was used as an obvious sight. It shines light on the regional uniqueness of the maxim and perhaps illustrates that the saying goes far back in history. In modernity, there a lot more large, obvious things that could be used to replace the role of the camel in the maxim, yet it persists because of its place in the history of the region.

“Ära hõiska enne õhtut.” – Estonian Proverb

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.


I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following.


  • Original: “Ära hõiska enne õhtut.”
  • Translation: Don’t shout for joy before night.

Informant’s Explanation:

M: “This means not to celebrate good fortune too soon; there are many ways things can go wrong; wait until you are sure. Until then, keep that icy face.”

Informant’s Thoughts: 

M: “This speaks to the Estonian temperament, which is the product of centuries of hardship and a cold northern climate. Estonians are a “glass half-full” kind of people; they are naturally pessimistic, always seeing or fearing trouble on the horizon. This is understandable, but I disagree. When you have good fortune, you should rejoice. You can rejoice without taking it for granted, without counting your chickens before they hatch (to quote another proverb). “


I think my mother did a good job of explaining this one. Her comparison to the English proverb “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”, is a very good comparison as the two proverbs essentially carry the same meaning, although the message is conveyed through different imagery. Furthermore, I think that the night takes on a different meaning in colder climates, such as that of Estonia, where nightfall can actually be a dangerous and bleak time due to the cold.

Szekely and Hungarian Proverbs

Main Text: 

Szekely & Hungarian Proverbs

Background on Informant: 

My informant is originally from Romania, specifically the Transylvania region that is intermixed with Romanian and Hungarian roots. They came to the United States at 24 and have been here since. They are very knowledgable with the cultural context of Romania and Hungary, having grown up in Szekely tradition (a subgroup of Hungarian people living in Romania). They have graciously shared with me parts of their folklore and heritage. 


They explain:

“You know a lot of these phrases stem from long traditions of proverbs and jokes, and I can remember as far back as my great-grandparents using these, but obviously many have evolved since then. 

A few I remember are: 

Sok lúd disznót győz. 

A rough translation would be like ‘A lot of geese can fight a pig’. It means that if someone is fighting against another person, if a lot of weaker people team up together they can take down the strongest opponent — hence a pack of geese against a pig is stronger than a single goose standing against a pig. 

My grandfather would tell me this a lot, he always had a fighting spirit. I guess in an American version it would like— united we stand something along those lines. 

Another one is

Itt van a kutya elásva

It kind of means ‘this is where the dog is buried’. We have this superstitious belief in our culture where if someone trips, it means that where they tripped is where a dog under the spell of the devil is buried. They also say that it might also have precious gems buried along with it. 

My mother would use it in a sort of more modern sense, to represent telling the truth, especially when we were younger to warn us about lying. 

Elszaladt vele a ló. 

This means ‘the horse ran away with him,’ it kind of means when people get carried away, it can be in pride or success — anything getting too much into someone’s head. The symbolism is that a good rider can control his/her horse but if they lose control they get the consequences.”


Listening and learning about these phrases allowed me to get some insight into Szekely ‘wisdom’ and expressions. I had never heard of these but even with the context they are very reminiscent of expressions I have heard in my own life. A lot of the phrases are attributed in a cultural context to the typical historical past of Hungary/Romania as a lot of them are associated with farm animals like horses and pigs that are very typical of the ancestral past and even in today’s traditions. 

I like how they all offer different insight into situations and how they evolved over time. I also like how they have been phrases that the person has experienced first hand themselves on several occasions and it was enjoyable to learn about. Overall, it was interesting to observe the cultural context of these proverbs and sayings and connecting them to the ones that I grew up listening to and observing how each culture has the same wisdom just said and established differently. 


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Ah, Yes, Procrastination is, in Fact, Bad: A Proverb

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘P’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 48-year-old Punjabi woman, born and raised in North India.

P: So, we say, ‘kaal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab. Pal mein pralay hoyega, bahuri karega kab?’ (If you can do it tomorrow, do it today; if you can do it today, do it now. Disaster can strike at any moment, when will you do it then?), now, this is a Kabir doha. Now, this basically… what it means is, he’s talking about the meaning of time in a person’s life, and how it is about… if there’s anything you need to do, you should do it that very day. In fact, not only that particular day, if you’re doing it that day, you might as well do it right away. Because, you never know — ‘pal mein pralay hoyega’ (Disaster can strike momentarily), what happens if tragedy strikes? Then, all your unfinished work is something that remains unfinished. So the meaning of time is what he talks about, in a person’s life, and the importance of doing things as soon as you can. 

I: Do you have a hypothetical situation in which you would use this?

P: It’s pretty self-explanatory, right, like… if someone is procrastinating too much, or not managing their time well in their workplace, a colleague or a junior. You can tell them this then, and they would understand. 

Original Script: काल करे सो आज कर, आज करे सो अब। पल में प्रलय होएगी, बहुरि करेगा कब ॥

Romanisation: Kaal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab. Pal mein pralay hoyega, bahuri karega kab?

Word for word: Tomorrow do then do it today, today do it now. In a moment disaster happens, again when will you do it?

Translation: If you can do it tomorrow, do it today; if you can do it today, do it now. Disaster can strike at any moment, when will you do it then? 

Comparable Proverbs in English: Tomorrow never comes, Time flies, Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.


This proverb is one that is used very commonly in India, one that rhymes and is known by pretty much everyone who grows up speaking Hindi in their family: it is sort of a paremiological minimum for Indians, believed to have been said by, as the informant stated, Kabir, an Indian poet and saint in the fifteenth century, establishing a terminus post quem for this proverb. Time, even though it is something humans gave a weight of meaning to, has always put pressure upon us, to manage it correctly and therefore earn some form of prosperity or success. Procrastination is frowned upon in every modern sphere, especially considering the influence of capitalism on productivity as a concept, but this pronoun is veritably old, from fifteenth-century India, showing that this isn’t an idea that originated with capitalism or modern ideas of productivity. A similar sentiment is echoed in an English proverb, prominent in the United States: never put off until tomorrow what you can do today [For this version, see: Predelli, Stefano. “Never Put off until Tomorrow What You Can Do Today.” Analysis, vol. 56, no. 2, 1996, pp. 85–91. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3328163.]. Both these sayings talk about time and its fleeting nature, specifically with an emphasis on the idea of the ‘tomorrow’ that never comes (another proverb, tomorrow never comes), and the ‘today’ that is fleeting and must be utilized correctly and productively.