Background: The informant is a woman in her late fifties who grew up in downstate New York in Queens and on Long Island before moving to upstate New York for college. In her mid 20s, she moved out to Southern California and she had lived there ever since. She comes from a large family of Catholic Irish-Americans.
“If you don’t clean out your ears or bellybutton, you’ll
grow potatoes there.”
Context: Typically, this warning is told to children as a way to incentivize them into proper hygiene. As the informant explained it, there was an association between the dirt that gathered when someone didn’t clean their body and the dirt that potatoes grow in. The saying came directly from her grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland to New York as a young adult. However, the saying seemed to backfire for the informant—she admits that she never wanted to clean her ears or bellybutton after being told this hyperbole, just so she could see if potatoes actually grew.
Thoughts: The informant happens to be my mother, so I also grew up with this saying. Similar to her, I found the lie to be more interesting than scary, and as a young child I also avoided cleaning my bellybutton just to see what would happen. It’s interesting how these types of rumors can actually backfire on gullible children, instead encouraging them to do the opposite of what they’re told. I wonder if my great-grandmother knew that when she used the phrase, and only repeated it to her children and her children’s children because she found it amusing. This phrase also reminds me of another popular schoolyard rumor, where supposedly if you swallow a watermelon seed it will grow inside of you. The Irish Potato warning seems to be somewhat less widespread in the United States. None of my friends can recall a similar warning, and the only other place I’ve encountered it being used it in Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes, a memoir about Irish-American immigrants.
The following was transcribed from a conversation recorded between informant and interviewer.
Informant: “Ahora si te cacharon con las manos en la masa”
Now yes they caught you with the hands on the dough
Now they caught you in the act of the crime
Interviewer: Why dough? Why does it have to be dough?
Informant: I don’t know. It’s just a saying that’s well known. For example if you’re stealing and your mom were to catch you red-handed, then one would say “they caught him red-handed in the action”.
Background: My grandpa was my informant. He was born and raised in Guadalajara and did not travel to the U.S. until a couple years ago. He has lived in Mexico for about 70 years so he knows of a lot of Mexican traditions and legends and sayings. He knows this one pretty well from other people but that he never had to use that line to his daughter (my mom). It just stuck with him and he hears me and my sister say it a lot in the house.
Context: I hadn’t thought about this one as a folk speech at first because I forgot what I was doing but I was with my sister. And my sister had done some wrongdoing so I said “te van a cachar con las manos en la maza… on the dough”. And then my sister said wait can’t you use that for your collection project and I thought about it and then proceeded to ask my grandpa more about it.
Thoughts: I definitely overuse this one with my sister. I find it funny and it definitely lets the other person know they are exposed. I still do not know why “maza” as in dough but I know the meaning behind it- which is that they got caught red-handed. However, it’s not a saying that is commonly used. I think it’s used to create emphasis and drama more than anything.
Context: This is a proverb that is native to my dad’s village and he learned it as a child growing up in Onitsha. Proverbs like this were a prominent means of giving advice and life lessons especially to the children of the tight-knit community.
“Nwata adi ebu orika”
Adi: does not or should not
Full Translation: A child should not carry the responsibility of the entire house or the responsibility of taking care of themself, meaning that parents have a responsibility to make sure that their children do not carry a burden that they cannot yet carry.
Explanation: My dad grew up in Nigeria and learned this proverb from his father[my grandfather]as a child. He remembers it well because it’s an important aspect of the community when he was growing up. He talked about the fact that “It takes a village”, meaning that it was important for adults in the community to support and help a child develop and grow. This is why it was stressed heavily that children must not be burdened by responsibilities that cannot carry.
Thoughts: I found this proverb to be quite compelling and that it really speaks truth to how I was raised. I am Nigerian American so I grew up hearing proverbs like this from my parents. This proverb is one that I have heard often, and I understood its meaning to be that as a child I should not try to overload myself or overextend myself. After talking with my dad about this, the meaning became more clear. While I should not overburden myself as a child, it also puts the responsibility on my parents to make sure that they handle their responsibilities and give me what I can manage. Indirectly this proverb has influenced a lot of my decisions because I always consult with my parents when I plan on taking on a new responsibility. Every decision becomes a dialogue and I always make sure that I understand now, that some things I cannot do by myself and I am grateful that my parents are around to alleviate and take on some of my burdens.
“Bless your heart. It means aw, you fucking idiot. We say it like an insult, like oh that poor soul. It’s a southern, midwest thing. I learned it from my mom, who is from Texas. It’s definitely not a compliment, and it’s usually said behind someone’s back when you think they are stupid. But it also applies as a synonym for thank you, like when someone does something nice to you you say ‘bless your heart’ and that is meant sincerely.”
Background: My informant is from Kansas City, Kansas with her extended family being from Texas, Kansas and some in Florida.
Context: She is a good friend of mine I made at USC. We Facetimed (quarantine prevents live conversations), and I asked her if she had any sort of folklore after explaining the concept, and she immediately thought of this. I am from LA, and I don’t know much about the midwest or south so she immediately went to those identifying factors.
Thoughts: I think this is in line with the idea of Southern hospitality existing in the same space as extreme xenophobia. I don’t know much about the South, but I found this interesting because it’s the fake nice that you would expect. I’ve heard this used in California, but only as an expression of thanks, and only ever from older white people.
“Leaves of three, let it be. If
it’s shiny, watch your heiny. If it’s hairy, it’s a berry”
This piece of
folklore is a saying to talk about how to identify poison oak. If it has three
leaves or is shiny with oil, watch your heiny, meaning that it is likely poison
oak. If the plant is hairy, it is a berry bush. This piece of folklore is
performed typically outdoors and used for a very practical sense. It is a
teaching tool to enable people to identify poison oak, whose oil will cause
rashes on anyone who touches it with bare skin.
subject learned this piece of folklore from Boy Scouts. It embodies the type of
preparedness and learning the boy scouts emphasizes and is a very practical way
of remembering the qualities of a poison oak plant. The subject learned it from
their Scoutmaster during a camping trip. The subject, of course, made use of it
as a practical saying which is its intended purpose. They remember it because
of their interest in the outdoors when they were younger, which was the reason
they joined Boy Scouts in the first place.
This saying is not just a warning for kids. It represents technical education through oral folklore. Typically, something like this would just be told by another person or read in a book. Instead, this saying was created in order to help people remember their qualities. Because of this, it takes on a different form and really represents the importance of passing down knowledge to the younger generations.
“Scunner is like a bother, specifically like a kid or something. I don’t know what came first, but I say “You a scunner?” and so do many people I know around here, but my friends in Edinburgh say “You’re a wee scunner!” We use it to kind of callout a child for being a whiner.
This informant, MS, comes from Aberdeen, Scotland and has lived there for all of her life, except for a few years she spent in London. She’s from the silent generation so she has heard a lot of different sayings come and go over the years, but she says she remembers telling this to her sons, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. She even remembers her mother saying it to her when she was a little kid.
I invited MS, my great grandmother, to talk with me after a family reunion zoom call. A few
days later, we got together and we live streamed a rerun of Strictly Come Dancing over zoom and during the commercial breaks, we talked over some folklore from her life in Scotland, specifically from her childhood in Aberdeen.
What’s fascinating to me is the dichotomy of this statement. It appears that the idea of calling kids “scunners” when they misbehave is universal among the Scottish folk group as a whole, but the way it is said is regional within the folk group which shows you slightly different meanings. The Aberdeen way of saying it is so much more questioning, while the Edinburgh way is more accusatory and statement based. It shows you that variation is a very huge part of folklore, especially in this way of saying the same thing.
“And that’s the night the lights went out in Georgia”
“This is a saying that I’ve found is common among mothers and older Southern women. When someone does something that will get them into massive trouble, other people will say, “And that’s the night the lights went out in Georgia.” People use it very sparsely, like in big dramatic situations, not common small things. It’s kind of like the equivalent of saying, “he’s a dead man.””
This informant, HA, was born in Pensacola, FL but has lived in a few different parts of the American South for awhile, specifically the Floribama coastal area. His family has stayed in the south for as far back as he can remember. He has learned this saying from listening to his mother and remembers it from a time a church board member sent a scathing letter about the priest to the congregation and his mother said it.
I talked to HA by inviting them onto a zoom call with a few other friends we both knew from summer vacations where I used to live in Panama City, Florida. After the call I asked if he could stay and chat and we shared stories about our lives while I asked him questions about sayings and activities he remembered from his childhood.
Looking into it, it seems as if the saying comes from a popular country song by Vicki Lawrence that was later popularized in the nineties by Reba McEntire. As this song came out a good amount of years before HA was born, it makes sense that the song and it’s lasting effect on the culture of Southern vernacular fit her age demographic. It gives a great example of just how pop culture can be translated into folklore just as much as folklore is turned into pop culture. It seems like the song is about killing a cheating wife so it makes sense that HA would say it’s like “he’s a dead man.”
“I’ve had the radish” as a saying of exasperation and general exhaustion with someone or something.
My informant is a 49 year old woman living in Kansas City, Missouri. She grew up in Joplin but moved around during her 20s, living for some period in Philadelphia. There, she worked for a large non-profit and one of the women there, named Tamar, commonly used this phrase in an exasperated reaction to something. Eventually, the informant and her fellow coworkers and friends started using it out of habit without fully understanding its origin or meaning. Much later, they researched it and they believe it comes from the practice of eating a radish at the end of dinner to clean one’s pallet. Now, it is used in her family and amongst her friends as a statement of finality with something or someone.
I have heard this phrase throughout my life but this exchange happened in her living room following my asking if she knew of any folklore sayings.
For me, part of the appeal of this phrase is the strangeness of it to someone outside of a culture that uses it. For other similar sayings bound to a specific saying, generally I feel as though one can roughly figure out at least part of what is being said with it. However, from an outsider’s perspective, the phrase “I’ve had the radish” seemingly has very little to do with one being at the end of their patience. This point was emphasized by my informant who also found interest in the phrase originated in utter confusion. In this regard, the phrase can serve as an indicator for who is within a specific culture. The other major component of this phrase is the ties to an agricultural life in an urban environment. The notion of eating a radish as a palette cleanser for a meal is mostly only applicable to those that have consistent radish crops. The assumption is therefore that this phrase has ties to a more agricultural culture. While a modern world might not have this tradition of eating a radish at the end of dinner, by using the phrase, the culture remains alive albeit in a new form.
The informant is a Chinese American. We were discussing interesting superstitions in Chinese or American cultures when she brought out this item.
You’re not supposed to step on cracks in the floor. If you step on it, you’re going to break your mother’s back. And I think kids kinda play for fun with it when they’re little. There are very few kids who actually believe it. Obviously, because kids step on it all the time, and no one’s mother dies of that. It’s mostly just for fun.
Interviewer: And how do they play with it? Like in what situations?
Informant: Someone would say, don’t step on the cracks or you would break your mother’s back. And all the kids have to avoid stepping on cracks. They just have to all walk around like to avoid cracks,
Interviewer: And they just do it for fun?
Informant: Yeah, they just do it for fun.
Interviewer: Like, they laugh and walk around it?
Informant: Kind of. It’s more like if someone does accidentally step on a crack, they would point it out and like, ‘haha, you stepped on a crack; you broke your mother’s back!’ kind of thing. It’s obviously rude and stupid.
First, the saying itself includes a rhyming between “back” and “crack”. This is probably how the crack in the road is connected with the mother’s back.
Second, the saying involves homeopathic magic. Stepping on a crack is likened to actually stepping on mother’s back.
Third, the kids make fun of the saying, because they don’t believe in it. There is a counter-hegemonic feeling involved. The kids are supposed to follow the saying even they don’t believe it, so they follow the saying in an exaggerated way: for example, they intentionally avoid all the crack, and make fun of the kid who accidentally steps on a crack instead of feeling worried for the kid’s mom.
My informant doesn’t believe in the saying. She thinks the saying is stupid. She also cannot understand the doings of the kids.
The subject, my mother, and I were getting coffee for breakfast and I asked her if she could tell me some stories about her childhood. The subject’s father (who has recently passed away) was a history professor in the Midwest. The family moved frequently because of this, which made it difficult for them to settle in a single area for too long. The subject’s mother was a stay-at-home mother; she also has four other siblings. The subject’s parents were both the children of Norwegian immigrants and emphasized the value of hard work and wise spending habits. I think that this proverb reflects the down-to-earth and positive nature of the subject’s father. I haven’t encountered the exact version of this proverb anywhere else, but similar sayings exist sharing the theme of ‘seeing the best in other people’.
“My dad would always say, like, if we would complain about another person and say they were really mean he would say “Put the best construction on everything” so you don’t know, maybe they had good intentions, so think the best of other people.”