Friday, February 17, 2006

A rose (of Mohammed) by any other name . . .

Some of you have probably read this news: that Iranian pastry sellers, their display cases filled with danish pastries (which Iranians love to eat) but the streets in front of their stores (metaphorically speaking) filled with people outraged by many things Danish, have taken to calling these pastries "Rose of Mohammed" pastries. As the Yahoo! News article points out, this re-naming smacks of Congress' resolution to substitute the name "freedom fries" for "French fries" when the French didn't back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. No matter that the pastries are baked in Tehran (or, for that matter, that the fries are fried in the Capital Hill cafeteria). Just now, something is rotten in the state of Denmark . . . can't you smell it whenever you read the word "danish"?

Of course we (well, okay--I) chuckle a bit, knowing that such name changes are emotionally-driven attempts to make silk purses out of what have become, in the eyes of some, sows' ears. As Juliet knows, the thing named--in Saussure's language, the signified--does not change: the relationship between that thing and its name is an arbitrary one, determined by usage. "Downsize" may sound more pleasant in a news release than "lay off" does, but people are no less unemployed for all the euphemizing.

But such moments preform a useful reminder for us: We get reminded here--sometimes so blatantly that we laugh as a result--that language isn't neutral and valueless but, due to the very arbitrariness of the signifier-signified relationship, is a tripwire-laden jungle of implicit and explicit cultural judgments made, often, so long ago that we no longer recognize them or, in some cases, no longer think they matter when they are brought to our attention. This isn't a plea on behalf of politically-correct language--or against it, either. Our language--all language--is simply thus. What that fact should compel us to give some thought to is, when we go about naming and describing the things of the world, what we want our language for them to say about us as individuals and about us as a culture.

7 Comments:

Blogger Ariel said...

"...language isn't neutral and valueless but, due to the very arbitrariness of the signifier-signified relationship, is a tripwire-laden jungle of implicit and explicit cultural judgments made, often, so long ago that we no longer recognize them or, in some cases, no longer think they matter when they are brought to our attention."

Wow, I love that sentence. "Freedom fries" and "Rose of Muhammed" pastries should always be recognized and flourished so that we can laugh at ourselves. There's nothing like language to humble a person (or society?).

9:12 AM  
Blogger Sprittibee said...

Great post. Enjoyed it. Sorry I have been away for so long. Sorry Ariel and others. I'll try to get back in here more often.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Sprittibee said...

I just dropped a plug for you on my blog... here's the link:

http://sbees.blogspot.com/2006/02/agreeable-grammar-article.html

2:38 PM  
Blogger Ariel said...

Thanks for the plug, Sprittibee. If anyone's wondering, the VRP has been on hold for awhile as my wife and I've been enjoying the birth of our first child...and I've continued to go to school and work.

I have continued to post on my main blog, and hope to get something up here soon.

3:27 PM  
Blogger PI said...

Hi - here via Randall. Clearly I am from a different generation and thus find it a pain in the bum to edit everything before I open my mouth.
Whar ever happened to free speech?
I would hope that common courtesy would preclude me from saying something insulting or hurtful but nobody is perfect.

2:32 PM  
Blogger IamKungFool said...

i stumbled across this gem a long time ago. Glad it's still up and running it's nice to read something that is this well written yet comes across natural and refreshing. it's the literary metaphor of going for a 2 week camping trip and coming home to a hot shower.

anyway i'm going to read more, how often and with what regularity to you post? Or don't you keep a schedule?

And incase anyone is bored i found this oddball forum from a chain email...poor source i know, but it's worth a read.

www.reclaimtheusa.proboards104.com

9:17 PM  
Blogger Gaby de Wilde said...

lol, did they live in a cave?

12:17 AM  

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