What’s in a name?

Updated 09 Nov 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT’S freedom fries all over again. Remember a few centuries ago, in 2003, when the United States of America decided it would be a good idea to invade Iraq? Colin Powell stood around holding spoons of ‘anthrax’ and the weapon of mass distraction otherwise known as the American media went ballistic (pun intended) trying to convince everyone that there was an imminent threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?

Since bombing countries to rubble all by yourself can get lonely Washington went around trying to whip up support for what it called a ‘coalition of the willing’ who would join the US in this noble endeavour because, as we know all too well, consent is key.

It didn’t go too well and France in particular was unwilling to join in this headlong race to war, saying that military intervention would be the worst possible solution to the Iraq issue.

Naturally, no red-blooded, shotgun-toting, and possibly pick-up truck driving ‘with-us-or-against-us’ American was going to tolerate this perfidy, and that too from a country their own troops had liberated decades ago. Something had to be done about these ungrateful Frenchies, they fumed.

They hit the French where it really hurts: their famed cuisine.

And so they hit the French where it really hurts: their famed cuisine. And in that voluminous target list, what better food to home in on than the globally acclaimed symbol of Gallic gastronomy: the French Fry. Yes I’m aware that the ‘French’ fry is actually Belgian, so please don’t spoil my spuds.

And so, in restaurants across the United States and in particular in the Capitol itself, ‘French’ fries were now ‘freedom’ fries. Because, why not? Of course, as with any such operation, mission creep sets in and the question was asked that if French fries were now taboo, what about French toast? French bread? French twists? Well I don’t know about the last two, but for a while French toast did become Freedom toast.

I was reminded of this because due to the growing Saudi-Turkish rivalry, a popular Saudi fast food chain decided to ditch its ‘Turkish burger’ and, adding super-sized insult to injury, not only renamed it the ‘Greek combo’ but also reduced its price!

Ridiculous as it may seem, this renaming game is de rigeur when it comes to times of war and other geopolitical tussles. Take one of the most abiding mysteries of my childhood: Why are Alsatians and German shepherds called by two different names when they are in fact the exact same breed of dog? What’s up with that?

Well it turns out that this is because of World War I when the Allies found themselves facing off against Germany and the Central powers. As is usually the case with war, it was accompanied by a lot of rhetoric about the Horrible Huns and Gruesome Goths and so patriotic Westerners found it impossible to acknowledge that their favourite doggies were somehow German. After much presumably impassioned debate, the decision was made to rename this breed the Alsatian. The choice was no accident, as the (now) French province of Alsace had been a hotbed of fighting in World War I and had historically been contested by both France and Germany for several centuries. Now that’s what you call a dog whistle.

But here at least we see some degree of thought and creativity, which was notably absent when the US entered the war and decided to rename all things remotely German.

For example, the sour-tasting sauerkraut became ‘liberty cabbage,’ and hamburgers (because of their connection to the German city of Hamburg) became ‘liberty burgers’. Weirdest of all was the treatment meted out to German measles. Now, one would imagine that this name would be left as is because disease isn’t exactly a pleasant thing, but no … this affliction was also duly renamed ‘liberty measles’. For what it’s worth, you have to at least acknowledge how consistently freedom-loving the Americans are, even if that does seemingly come at the expense of the imagination.

But then ideology can make you do some strange things indeed, and few regimes were as ideologically driven as the one that ruled post-Revolution France. Militantly secular, they decided to ditch the Gregorian calendar, beginning as it does with the birth of Jesus and declared the year the republic was officially proclaimed as Year One, an act that would be echoed centuries later by the Khmer Rouge. They even went so far as to rename the months of the year and the days of the week so as to remove any hint of religion and superstition.

It didn’t stop there because how could a regime that had executed its monarchs have kings and queens pop up in a deck of cards? And so these two were renamed. But it didn’t hold, as such things rarely do and just like fries are still French and measles remain German, the kings and queens of cards continue to hold court.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2020