About two years ago, my brother-in-law who lives in Toronto, shared some urban myths and legends jelled from a batchmate at IIM Ahmedabad whose hobby it was to collect and recite them. I was able to resurrect and send him an article I had done on urban legends a decade earlier with my more recent comments. It suitably impressed my brother in law who felt he had “pressed the right button”. Indeed. I had occasion to revisit some of our urban legends and sayings in view of a recent move to make expressions like “bringing home the bacon” or “putting all your eggs in one basket” obsolete. While these may be considered as harmless quirks of the English language, an academic has claimed that these could offend vegans and vegetarians.
Shareena Hamzah of Swansea University has said that while meat-based metaphors are a staple “diet” of our everyday vernacular, an increased awareness of the environmental and ethical issues surrounding meat production “will undoubtedly be reflected in our language and literature” and this language may no longer be accepted.
Ms Hamzah goes on to say with almost an uncanny and chilling reference to the contemporary Indian social scene, “in today’s reality, meat is repeatedly the subject of much socially and politically charged discussion, including how the demand for meat is contributing to climate change and environmental degradation.” She continues, “given that fiction often reflects on real world events and societal issues, it may very well be that down the line powerful meat metaphors are eschewed.” Ms Hamzah believes that the increased awareness of vegan issues will filter through consciousness to produce new modes of expression.
Ms Hamzah believes along with the animal rights organisation like PETA, that violent imagery suggested by popular idioms like “flogging a dead horse” or “killing two birds with one stone” may soon be discarded. They may well be replaced with kinder expressions like “feeding a fed horse” (though how this may be possible is not explained) or “feeding two birds with one scone”.
On a lighter note, while we had substituted the expression “putting all your eggs in one basket” with “putting all your tomatoes in one basket”, I thought of some more expressions that would need urgent substitution or replacement.
While Ms Hamzah has not given us the origin of the term “bringing home the bacon”, David Wilton in his book Word Myths on urban legends, says that the term had its origins as a metaphor for having the means and ability to provide for one’s family. In the 1500s, perhaps people even had a rack in the parlour where they would hang some bacon to show off that they were wealthy and could afford it. Later, the cartoonist T.A.D. Dorgan used the expression in 1909 “he’ll bring home the bacon as sure as you’re wearing a hat.” Later of course, the usage was extended to denote success in any endeavour. The term “hot dog” may well have to be amended as it might prove offensive to the canine species.
In the popular television series, Better Call Saul, Saul Goodman often has his client meetings outside a popular hot dog restaurant. The neon lit advertisement shows a Dachshund eating sausages while happily wagging its tail. While the earliest expression of “hot dog” is to be found in the “Yale Record” of 1895, “But I delight to bite the dog, when placed inside the bun,” the reference to hot is obvious but why the reference to dog? Mr Wilton says that the term “dog” is a reference to the sausage and not to the contents of the sausage. It was used as a synonym from at least 1884.
A myth that Mr Wilton explores concerns the same cartoonist “Tad” Dorgan. Apparently Harry Stevens, a vendor, was selling “hot dogs” in the stands at a New York Giants baseball game in 1900. Dorgan recorded the event in a cartoon labeling the sausages as “hot dogs” as he did not know how to spell “frankfurters”. But Mr Wilton says the term “hot dog” was already in use and Dorgan did not move to New York from San Francisco till 1903. Moreover, no one has yet found the Dorgan cartoon in question. Nevertheless, we find the earlier version more exciting. Vendors selling the Indian version of hot dogs as “frankies” are common. How many of them would know the full form of “frankies”?
The terms “raining cats and dogs” to denote a particularly heavy monsoon may well also run into trouble as depicting cruelty to animals. The term has its supposed origins to the time when all the pets, dogs, cats, mice, rats and bugs all lived on the thatched roof. When it rained heavily, the roof became so slippery that the animals would slip off the roof and onto the street, hence the expression, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. But this too is a myth, for there is no evidence that all the animals lived on the thatched roof. Yet the term “cats and dogs” is used to symbolise heavy rain. Richard Brome, a poet, in his The City Wit, published in 1652, contained a line, “It shall raine … Dogs and Polecats” using polecats instead of cats.
A more reasonable expression could be that heavy rain would indeed drown cats and dogs in London streets and it would indeed look as if the animals had fallen from the sky. This could well be true given the inadequacies of London sewers at the time. Jonathan Swift, in his poem A Description of a City Shower in 1710, “Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”
The expression “letting the cat out of the bag” may well offend those who may feel the feline species are being suffocated. The Royal Navy used a whip of nine knitted cords known as the “cat o’ nine tails” to inflict punishment. The whip was shortened to simply the “cat”. On board the ship the “cat” was kept in a sealed bag to protect it from the salt air and keep it supple. “Letting the cat out of the bag” meant punishment. The term “cat” was used for that, just like the feline, the whip too could scratch. Perhaps the term “a cat with nine lives” had its origins here. But the origin of letting the “cat out of the bag” lies in unscrupulous farmers carrying a suckling pig to the market and at the last minute substituting a cat for the pig. Letting the cat out of the bag would mean the fraud would be discovered. The scam dates to at least 1530 whereas the naval expression for the whip dates to 1695.
The most famous example of animal cruelty was the entry of Coca Cola into the Chinese market in 1928. The marketing department of Coke took great care to ensure that the name of their product was translated in Mandarin in such a way that it could both be the most appropriate pronunciation as well as giving a favourable image to the product. But written Chinese had some 40,000 characters. While Coke wrestled with the problem, the first shipments of Coke arrived in China. Now the Chinese shopkeepers had to create hand-lettered signs to advertise the new drink. The characters used in the signs could be pronounced as “Coca Cola” but it could also be translated as “bite the wax tadpole”. Another translation could well be as “mare fastened with wax”. Both were highly inappropriate. It was only later that Coke came up with a combination of four characters in mandarin with the appropriate pronunciation and which could be translated as “let the mouth rejoice”.
As a consolation, Coke’s main rival Pepsi too had similar linguistic problems in China. Pepsi’s slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi” was translated into Chinese as “Pepsi brings your dead ancestors back to life.”
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books...