What’s in a name?


IF you watch The Daily Show hosted by comedian Trevor Noah, you might know of a segment on the satirical news TV show where one of the reporters Jordan Klepper goes out and interviews Trump supporters. He asks them very simple common-sense questions in a very respectful way and then listens as they respond. And in doing so, they pretty much hang themselves.

One of my favourite segments is when a Trump-supporting man and his wife lament the end of civility in American life. “Why can’t we all just get along?” they ask. Klepper agrees and puts it to them that we should not be rude to each other especially by not making any one-fingered gestures to one another. The couple nods in agreement. Then the camera lingers on the man’s t-shirt which depicts Donald Trump giving the finger “one for Biden, one for Harris”.

Looking at this colossal lack of self-awareness among the interviewees, I was reminded of some similar sorts in my own backyard, the sort of people who don’t mind standing up in public and spouting things they assume are original and clever. They’ll take something innocuous and extract and extrapolate from it all sorts of meanings that aren’t meant to be there and spin it into one giant controversy. I have to say it takes a lot of brainwork to do this, work that might have been better used to, say, give ideas on how to improve people’s lot in life perhaps.

I’ve asked this before, and may never get the answer, but really, what is the thought process here? In the case of a recent brouhaha over the name of an alcoholic drink, how did this begin?

Did somebody “accidentally” wander into the alcoholic beverage corner of a supermarket and while perusing the whiskey offerings (because what else do you do in the alcohol section?), came upon one whose name sounded somewhat... um...local. Eyebrows suitably heightened, this somebody’s grey matter starts to whirl. Have they found the perfect opportunity to make a name for themselves?

Here’s where the language gymnastics come in. Once again Malaysians proved their limitless ability to show their ignorance and embarrass ourselves in front of the world.

It reminds me of the time when the pop singer Dua Lipa came to visit. Ms Lipa happens to be of Muslim Albanian and Bosnian heritage although she was born and bred in the UK. She happened to mention that she calls her father Babé which must mean Dad in her mother tongue. Outrage ensues! How can she call her father after that short-legged snout-nosed pink creature we’re forbidden to eat??

Never mind that in Albanian, the word for the said animal is “derr”. Can you imagine Albanians coming here and being indignant every time one of us says “de-ngan” or “de-pan”? But no, in the entitled world some of our fellow citizens live in, other people must change their words to suit us.

Although of course we change words too so that our sensitive natures won’t be disturbed. I’m sure someone has told Ms Lipa that the next time she comes to Malaysia, she must refer to her father as Khinzir.

Back to our most recent event that got some people’s knickers in a twist. Whoever it was who spotted the bottle label in the first place, then shows us the effect of our education curriculum that doesn’t talk about the history of the tin mining industry in our country. Instead of thinking that the word means “tin”, in a prime example of the literalness that besets a lot of our folks, he assumes that it must be named after his mother or aunt. How could anyone name a whiskey after his sainted mother, for heaven’s sake!

He rushes off to tell his equally literal friends and puffs of smoke ensue from their heads as they ponder how to turn their small-time outrage into something bigger. Then someone remembers that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had a daughter named Fatimah! What an opportunity to prove one’s religious credentials, by defending the honour of a long-dead woman who had no idea she’d unwittingly lent part of her name to a metal AND an award-winning whiskey. The Malay Fatimahs who came after her are nicknamed Timah. So the whiskey manufacturers must have intended to insult her, despite the fact that nobody knows what the original Fatimah was called at home.

Outrage grew in direct proportion to every new insult dreamed up in someone’s head. Even women got into the game. One suggested that drinking Timah whiskey would be like ‘drinking Malay women’, conjuring up a sexualised image that had not been there until then. Should we all now check what our names have been used for in case there’s a possibility of some imagined assault on our bodies? My name sounds like the places where you tie up boats. Maybe I should consult someone as to what a carnal-minded politician might make of it.

We’re of course not alone in trying to make a point out of innocuous words. I recall Americans wanted to change fried potatoes from “french fries” to “freedom fries” just because the French didn’t agree with their plans to invade Iraq, possibly on the grounds that it would de-freedomise the Iraqis. Ordering freedom fries rather than French fries became a patriotic gesture, an easy cheap way of showing your support for your country marching into another to destroy it.

We laugh at the Americans for their silliness. Yet we’re so unaware of the increasing number of times when other people laugh at us.

When people are worried about the tanking economy, climate change, the slow disappearance of democracy, and the pandemic, some people insist that a drink they would never touch cannot be named after a metal that helped prosper our country, nor that the man depicted be shown in a beard and skullcap because those are also exclusive to us.

Marina Mahathir worries that our brains are quickly going down the drain because we are led by the most clueless people on earth. The views expressed here are solely her own.

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