Supersize Those Freedom Fries


After Ohio Congressman Bob Ney renamed Capitol Hill French fries "Freedom fries" -- an act of retribution for France's promised U.N. veto of U.S. war plans in Iraq -- I wondered if the linguistic fallout of the war would spread to other Security Council members.

Who's next on the chopping block: guinea pigs, China clay and Tex-Mex cuisine?

Spain's gung-ho support for President Bush's "coalition of the willing" means that the Spanish omelet is safe for now. But I am not sure veto-wielding China or the Russian Federation would mind at all if Russian roulette and the Chinese fire drill dropped their national credentials.

Will Pakistan's vote make "Paki" an even more potent schoolyard slur, or will bullies not want to sully their tongues with the name of a country that doesn't vote the way the United States wants it to? Will chili con carne go out of favor because we cannot tell our chili from our Chile?

Actually, I don't think greater scrutiny of nationalistic naming conventions is a bad idea. It might clear up a lot of cultural confusion. French fries, the French Embassy informs us, are really Belgian. Dutch treats are just penny-pinching, not necessarily Dutch.

V. M. Molotov, the former Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs, didn't ask that an explosive be named after him. Finns, angry at Russians, named the flaming grenade the Molotov cocktail. Many of these designations carry the sorry baggage of cultural confusion, historical inaccuracies and mixed-up passports, not to mention colonial hangovers. Perhaps this could be the opportunity for a cultural spring cleaning that would return all things to their rightful owners. A sort of linguistic equivalent to the return of the Elysian Marbles.

As an Indian, I am sorry India is no longer on the Security Council. I would have liked to get Indian summer and Indian ink de-Indianized. Heck, while we're at it, how about renaming American Indians, too, to solve that endless confusion?

Words at their best can be confusing things. India ink is actually brought from China. An African marigold is an American plant. A Persian cat is the same as an Angora cat, which is sometimes called an Angola cat (Security Council member Angola, take note). The Thanksgiving turkey is a very American bird and has little to do with Iraq's neighbor where the United States is trying to set up bases. Of course, new Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has no idea that any vote on bases might also end up affecting the fate of Turkish towels.

Words at their worst can be vicious things. When attached to national origins, they can acquire a sting that remains long after their etymology is forgotten. Not everyone knows where Paki comes from, few could even point to Pakistan on the map, but the slur applies to Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Sri Lankans and assorted brown-skinned people indiscriminately. Homeless vagabonds are "street Arabs."

Slurs are certainly not the exclusive preserve of colonial masters. The subjects learned well, too. In Bengali, someone with no cultural refinement was derided as an "Ujbug," aka Uzbeg, though no one knows how many people from Uzbekistan a typical Bengali has ever met.

Mostly, what these words say is that when entire countries and continents of people are amorphous, indistinguishable masses to those who have the power to name them, mistakes not only happen, they enter the dictionary and acquire a life of their own. When I call this ink/flower/cat/person Chinese, when it is really Japanese, it means they all look the same to me. As in, they are all foreign and strange. And the words remain, long after there ceases to be anything German about German measles.

But the fuss about the French in French fries reminds us that long after we have forgotten their origins, such words can still itch. We try to flaunt or purge the associations depending on the national mood. Countries and cities rename themselves to shed colonial baggage. Bombay becomes Mumbai, leaving Bombay Duck and Bombay gin stranded.

Nationalists and traditionalists argue endlessly about whether the change is good or bad, whether Rhodesia lost part of its history when it became Zimbabwe. In time, we forget the birth pangs, but the word remains buried in the language like a landmine. Until someone like Bob Ney looks at the menu at the Capitol Hill cafeteria.

If I were Ney, I wouldn't have chosen Freedom fries. If I were Ney, I'd have offered the name to one of the other Security Council members who were still waffling. How about Angolan fries in exchange for an Angolan vote?

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