Word Nerd

Meaghan Trewin
Meaghan Trewin

In 2003, when the French government opposed the American war on Iraq, certain areas of the United States exploded with anti-French sentiment.  The most amusing legacy of this political clash is the renaming of French toast and French fries to “freedom toast” and “freedom fries.”  Claimed to be a protest against France’s stance, the small culinary admonishment attracted a wide variety of media attention and the incident quickly became the subject of international criticism and ridicule.  This is not, however, a unique incident. “Freedom fries” belong to a longstanding tradition of words used throughout history to make political statements.

In his struggle for independence, Gandhi promoted Hindi as a national language.  While each area would continue to speak its own dialect, he thought a common language would promote a national unity separate from British authority.  Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, attempted to define American English as distinct with its own words and spellings.  Americans put so much emphasis on the distinction that in 1923 the Illinois government passed a bill making American the official state language. Although the law has since been repealed, its creation shows the importance of language in defining a culture and the powerful connection between politics and language.

Although “freedom fries” as a political statement seems ridiculous and petty next to Gandhi’s lofty idealism or the stubborn patriotism of American linguists, changing names and titles in order to reflect or sway public opinion is a smaller, subtler version of the same practice.  The world war era was particularly rife with linguistic propaganda as anti-German sentiment spread throughout Britain and North America.  In Britain, German Shepherds were referred to as Alsatians and German biscuits were renamed Empire biscuits.  Even in Canada, the city Berlin was renamed Kitchener, despite the presence of German immigrants in the city.  The United States, however, was not to be outdone, and added its own appellations to the mix.  Sauerkraut was called “liberty cabbage,” while the hamburger, bringing to mind the German city Hamburg, was called the “liberty sandwich” or “defence steak.”  Even diseases were not immune to language politics: for the duration of the war, Americans stubbornly referred to the German measles as “liberty measles.”

As silly as it seems, the “freedom fries” episode could be seen as participating in a long-standing tradition of experimentation with the political power of language.

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