Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The What, The Where, but the Why?

Objects gain names for many reasons. These range from orders from God, at least according to the Bible, to poor translation (the poor White Rhino is actually grey but is quite wide, relative to its more common cousin).  Sometimes, the location of its source is so identified with the product that the place name becomes the product.  As time passes, if the object is much more famous than its place of birth, its “mother” becomes completely forgotten.

A prime example of this can be seen in clothes. In the winter, women can be seen wearing jerseys and Kashmir sweaters, depending on income of course, without them giving a thought about England and Pakistan/India.  By contrast, the guy wearing the Bermudas and the girl wearing the bikini talking to each other have no thoughts of distant tropical islands except possibly as a great place to go on vacation and get to know each other better.

At the bar, customers sipping cognac, champagne and Porto are enjoying their drinks completely ignoring that it is quite probable that they were produced in distant regions in France and Portugal.  Granted, there is a running dispute whether the latter should refer to the place or type of grape, but the French would insist on the first.  However, here at least, there is a connection between the beverage and its source of production.  By contrast, the patrons at the table swilling their Bronxes and Manhattans justifiably cannot see any connection between the name of their alcoholic concoctions and those boroughs in New York.  For that matter, if the designated driver is drinking coffee in a china cup, does s/he make any connection to the designers of the Great Wall?  It seems doubtful.

The world of cheese is filled with namesakes.  How many people know where Gorgonzola, Edam, Gruyere and Cheshire cheese are made, to name just a few?  To be fair, the answers are Italy, Holland, France, and England.  There is a significantly greater chance that a person has tasted all those cheeses than visited those places.

Occasionally, history seeps down and enters common language, linking obscure localities to complex ideas. If you have had your Waterloo, your game is over. On the other hand, after your Dunquerke, you will rise again, but it may take many marathon sessions to do it.  If you fail, you may get sent to Timbuktu, i.e. very far away.  I strongly suspect that most people could not find any of those locations on a map or even identify in which country they are located.

 Yet, it may not be that important to make the connection.  As long as we understand what item the name represents, the knowledge of its origin, however fascinating, is essentially a matter of intellectual curiosity and pride.  On the other hand, many otherwise forgotten villages owe their fame to their special product.  To quote Mark Twain, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

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