Coffee in the Gourd, ed. J. Frank Dobie , at sacred-texts.com
The Encyclopedia Britannica says that the literature of folklore falls into two sharply defined classes, viz., synthetic works and collections. Correspondingly, folklorists may be placed in two classes, those that merely collect, and those that interpret and compare. Still a third class might be made-those that enjoy. I feel that if such a division is not recognized, and the pursuit of folklore made to conform thereto, we folklorists are in danger of sinking to the level of philatelists, numismatists, and others of that ilk. I also feel that chief stress should be laid on the interpreting and comparing of folklore, and not on the collecting. The latter requires no great mental effort. Those that can do this best have to thank geographical situation or temporal juncture. Of course we must collect and enjoy, but it is, perhaps, not amiss for me to urge upon the members of this society, thus early in its career, to try to see folklore in its largest significance. To be brief, if art has always been the handmaid of religion, what Is folklore to be the handmaid of? To me the pursuit of folklore shall always be worth while for the light it throws on the evolution of society and its institutions. For instance, as I was collecting these metaphors I was very much interested in seeing bow far they chime in with that relatively recent theory that is attracting so much attention these days, viz., economic determinism--or the theory that art, both in content and in form, has it roots deep down in the economic life of a folk.
I have used the word "metaphor" advisedly but somewhat loosely. Some of the things I have in mind are metaphors, some similes, some comparisons, and some merely pieces of imagery. It is simply this. Unlettered folk seem to be fond of making comparisons to natural objects to express their ideas and feelings. Vividness and freshness are qualities always present. I will not venture to say what I mean by a folk, further than that the term seems to me to include anybody that is not a folklorist.
The assertion that folk metaphor has declined and decayed implies that folks have declined and decayed. This is true: and an exposition of this fact would have been only the converse of my thesis,--and more tangible; but then it would have been an essay in sociology and not in folklore.
I have made a simple classification of all the folk metaphors, similes, and comparisons that have chanced to get embedded in my memory. We have (1) those that have' been inherited, and (2) those that have been created by the present generation. Of course, both kinds are employed by the present generation. But their employment is now less frequent and their creation seems to have almost ceased. I have further divided the first class into (1) those that have lost absolutely their appositeness and (2) those that are, I might say, illegal. I shall set down here for you only a few that are typical. The inapposite class, I am sure, will appeal to those of you who have at some time caught yourself asking, "Well, I wonder how that could have originated?" There is now and has always been current in my community the saying, with reference to a man that is financially very able, "He's got more money than Carter had oats." Yet there never has been a man in this community by the name of Carter and the acreage devoted to oats has always been insignificant. Hence you can see that the phrase has lost every particle of its force. Another of this kind is "as tight as Dick's hatband." Just who Dick was and how tight the hat band was that he wore will probably never be known. The following similes, metaphors, and comparisons I have classed, generally, as illegal: "as hungry as a wolf," "as strong as an ox," as mad as a setting hen," "as cold as a cart wheel," "as limber as a dish rag," "as happy as a lark," "as proud as a peacock," "as meek as a lamb," "as crazy as a bat," "as drunk as a fool," "hot as blue blazes," "quick as lightning."
A good example of pure metaphor is: "If you don't mind, you will go through the forest, and take a crooked stick after all," said of a young lady who has failed to gather her rosebuds while she might have gathered them.
I call these illegal because they are the property of a dead generation. For instance, how meaningless is it for a present-day person to say, "I am as hungry as a wolf," when he has never seen a wolf except at a circus. What sense is there in saying, "as mad as a settin' hen," when an incubator is on almost every farm? "As strong as an ox" was once expressive when that animal was used for draft purposes, but one rarely finds an ox-team to-day. Take the metaphor of the crooked stick referred to above. I once heard a young lady use that metaphor as she sat with her feet on a steam radiator. However, there are a few figures in this list that, like Shakespeare, are not for an age but for all time. For instance, "as quick as lightning." The age cannot be imagined when that will not be apropos.
Life has been said to be a complete correspondence to environment. The same may be said of successful figurative language. This is why I say that folk metaphor has decayed. It no longer reflects its environment but that of a past age. And there seems to be nothing in our present age that stimulates metaphor. However, the various technical slangs of today come pretty near to corresponding to the metaphors of folks when all communities were mostly agricultural and domestic. I believe I can, by using a single illustration, make you realize that folk metaphor has decayed. A man of two generations ago, when he desired to express the intensity of the cold of a morning of low temperature, generally said, "It's as cold as a cart wheel this morning." This same man's grandson always says, "Gee, it's cold as hell this morning, ain't it?"
Right here a pertinent inquiry is, Why has folk metaphor decayed and declined? Without expatiating, I contend that the decline is due to the overshadowing of the country by the towns, the spread of book education, and the worship of something we call Efficiency, physical exhaustion, and the almost universal desire in America to become something other than what we are. I don't believe that metaphor will ever revive as long as so many of us are divorced from reality. A quiescent stage of social evolution, too, is, I think, its most favorable medium.
The task I have set myself is to collect all these folk metaphors, similes, and comparisons that I feel sure have come into existence within the last few years. I regret that I haven't a larger collection of these newly coined comparisons, but I have been collecting only a few months and this is a task that cannot be hurried. I here set down a few that 1 know to be of recent origin. Within the past year this simile has gained currency in my neighborhood. A negro from the day-laboring class meets another who has a more stable means of livelihood. The latter says, "Hello, Bill, how you gettin' 'long these days?" The reply is: "I don't know--living like a wild cat--don't catch nothing, don't eat nothing." I once rode up to an old negro that was "chopping cotton" with several assistants. I asked him how many men he was working. When he replied "five," I counted them, and then pointing to his ten-year-old boy, I asked if he called him a man. He said, "Boss, he's a man at the table." I was once present at the birth of a metaphor. One little negro was busy mending a plow, while a smaller negro was pestering him. The larger one then said to the smaller one, "If you don't stop, I'll make you rabbit away from here." That was the first time I ever heard "rabbit" used as a verb. But it is now more or less common. And any one that has ever seen a Molly Cottontail get up and seek safety in flight knows that this metaphor is almost the perfection of language. One of the most picturesque expressions to denote loyalty I ever heard is this: "I likes you; I'll go to the bluff and look over with you," implying that the one would succor the other almost to self-sacrifice. The last one I shall exhibit I know, by applying the method of the higher criticism, to be, in origin, synchronous with the high cost of living. Two old cronies meet, not having seen each other in several years. One says, "Bill, how much family have you got now?" Bill replies with a smile of good fortune, "Pshaw, fellow, there's nothing running around my house but the fence."