Making a Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear
Reading an article on the BBC website recently made me start to think about the fluidity of language.
The rather tragic piece highlights the attempts by some food sellers in the Sudan to devise novel names for dishes in order to make them more appealing.
One such offering was the ‘one ’. The sandwich consists of a single peeled banana in a roll.
This is against a backdrop of soaring food prices that effectively put favourites such as falafel out of the reach of many in the struggling nation.
Local markets in the capital Khartoum have been advertising the ‘One Gig’ as a means of dressing up the sandwich and make it more appealing to consumers. The name apparently comes from the cheapest monthly internet package available in the country and was chosen because the simple sandwich consists of easy-to-come-by ingredients.
Bread is a staple food source in Sudan, but according to the Hurriyatsudan news website, some bakeries are being forced to shut up shop due to shortages of wheat to make flour.
This makes it all the more important to cut costs wherever possible, and cheap fillings keep down meal costs at a time when the price of food is rising.
But the marketing move doesn’t stop there. Another favourite on the street of Khartoum is the ‘Sound System’ sandwich. The name is amusingly appropriate yet slightly macabre, as the filling consists of cows’ ears.
And it is this employment of wry humour that can so often be seen to drive the creation of new phrases. If I had turned to someone 20 years ago and bemoaned the prevalence of ‘Chelsea tractors’ on the roads, they would have no doubt looked at me with a mixture of confusion and fear. Yet now the phrase is synonymous with high-powered 4x4s pointlessly driven in suburban areas. In less than a generation the phrase has slipped into everyday parlance.
Similar can be said for the quintessentially 1980s term Sloane Ranger, often worn as a badge of pride among the affluent West London women it was coined to describe.
It has often baffled me that countries in such close geographical proximity can have such divergent languages. Even regions within a single country have dialects so divergent that a person from one area will struggle to understand someone from a neighbouring region.
And yet word trends catch on like wild fire. New words, or re-appropriated words with new meaning, catch on so seemingly effortlessly that it is a wonder we can communicate at all. And the idea is not a new one. For millennia people have pondered why the world has so many languages. Early in the Old Testament comes the story of Babel, where man’s hubris for attempting to build a tower to the heavens was punished by God, who scattered mankind upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages so that they would not again be able to unite for such a project.
Language reacts and evolves, it fills niches and encapsulates grand schemes. It mirrors the thoughts of a generation and acts as a mark of what has been.
So just as I now order an Americano without thinking, where once I might have asked for a simple coffee, maybe the Sound System may become a staple in delis across the Sudan, but I hope not.