Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Language of New Orleans in One Word: Gumbo

New Orleans (Photo: Marco Werman)

New Orleans (Photo: Marco Werman)

A post from Big Show host Marco Werman

You might have heard me mention that I recently spent some time in New Orleans, as a guest of public radio station WWNO. And one of the things that struck me about the “Big Easy” is the language of the place. It’s a reflection of the diversity and wild history of the city.

Like the advice “LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL” or “laissez les bons temps rouler,” there’s a unique word-for-word english-to-cajun french construction that shouldn’t work but does.

It’s also interesting how the words that describe New Orleans’ two best known cultural contributions to America – music and food – express multiple layers of meaning in this city.

Think jazz.

Think gumbo.

And whenever new people come to New Orleans, the words and the music and the food evolve. When you listen to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins performing at the Bullet’s Sports Bar in the city’s seventh ward, it’s easy to forget that all this comes out of a few hundreds years of history.

“You know, it’s like “there’s no place quite like this place, so this must be the place”? There is no place in the United States quite like this place. Southern Louisiana,” says New Orleans food historian Jessica B. Harris. “This is a place that has been French, then Spanish, then French, then American. That’s a lot of stuff going on.”

Not to mention the native Americans who mixed with African slaves and set down the local creole flavor. Not to mention the entire Caribbean which New Orleans was the center of long before Miami assumed the mantle in the 20th century.

Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff going on.

“It is that place where things mix. People often have referred to the culture of New Orleans as a gumbo,” Harris says. Now you may know gumbo as a stew of various meats and some veg served over rice. It’s classic New Orleans. And yet the word gumbo refers to what used to be a key ingredient in the stew.

“If you go anywhere in the French speaking world today and want okra, you ask for gombo. The word “gombo” comes from the Bantu languages: “ochigombo” and “quibombo” which mean okra. So okra I think is intensely connected to this place,” says Harris.

And it’s not just because New Orleanians like their okra.

Okra, the origin of New Orleans gumbo (Photo: Marco Werman)

Okra, the origin of New Orleans gumbo (Photo: Marco Werman)

Gumbo reflects the diversity of the city. “It’s a case where these parts make an extraordinary whole without totally melting. You know, if you have a good gumbo, you can still see the okra, you still know that that was Andouille, you’re still aware of the fact that that was duck or chicken or what have you. It’s not just a brown stew. It’s something else.”

Enriching. Just like gumbo.

You can’t get away from that metaphor in New Orleans. “We all do things in a different way. But when we come together and put all those ideas together, it’s really enriching,” says Father Anthony Anala, also known as Father Tony. He’s a priest, from Ghana in West Africa who’s been leading the congregation at Our Lady Star of the Sea in New Orleans since 2008.

I wanted to meet him because having spent some time in Togo, Ghana’s neighbor, I wanted to hear a West African talk about how they saw the connection between New Orleans and their part of the world.

Now, when Father Tony got to New Orleans five years ago, imagine his surprise! He leaves the home of okra to arrive in the home of gumbo. Not only that, this past April, this Ghanaian priest got about as deep into New Orleans musical culture as you can get. He presided over the funeral of a Mardi Gras Indian, a Black Seminole named Cyril Big Six Chief Ironhorse Green.

“There was that mood of celebrating the achievements he has had. And so it was more uplifting, upbeat.”

Marco: “And the whole idea of a funeral being a moment of celebration, that’s something you find at funerals in northern Ghana and Togo. It’s a party time”

Chief says laughingly, “Exactly. All the families come for one funeral, then they all go to another funeral and you can celebrate funerals for like a month,”

And of course, wouldn’t you know it, the day I met Father Tony he had had a Ghanaian specialty for lunch: stewed goat. Although he says New Orleans food suits him just fine too. “There’s a bit of spiciness in the food, and the gumbo, it tastes like back home.”

“People gone be eatin’ gumbo. Now all of a sudden you may discover that there’re some other things goin into that gumbo. But that takes it from the culinary to the social metaphor, because there are other things going into the gumbo that are the city as well., says food historian Jessica Harris.

And sometimes those “other things” become the standard. That’s what happened with Vietnamese bakery Dong Phuong. Vietnam was hobbling back from war when the Tranh family left and came to New Orleans in 1980. Vietnam and New Orleans in fact share French influence. Madame Huong Tran’s family in Vietnam were bakers and they brought their trade here.

To accommodate local tastes, the Trans came up with a sandwich roll that worked for both their banh mi Vietnamese Sandwiches and American subs. “You know the French took over Vietnam 100 years. So we take some recipe from French, some American, also from my parents too. Three recipes in one,” so now you get that crunchy baguette outside.”

The Dong Phuong bakery is now the number one source in all of New Orleans for the bread for the city’s famed Po-Boy: that sub stuffed with fried oysters or shrimp.

Allen Toussaint (Photo: Marco Werman)

Allen Toussaint (Photo: Marco Werman)

This pleases pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint to no end when he returns home from touring. “Shrimp Po-Boy. Dressed. You have to say dressed!” We’re all “villains in a feeding frenzy. We do that a lot here. But everywhere I go, I’m always glad to get home, but when I leave New Orleans, I never go anywhere else looking for any part of New Orleans. I collect scraps and wishbones and feathers everywhere I go, and then I come home and try and produce a chicken. And it works, and the more extensive travel is, the more I have in my reservoir.”

Toussaint has a song that’s reflects the Big Easy.

“A yankee saw a crawfish called it a baby lobster
We laughed so hard we nearly busted our sides.

But when he tasted the difference he started raving so much he got a southern welcome arms open wide.

Imagine boudin cooking.
Imagine cracklins cracklin.
Almost enough cayenne to water your eyes.

But in the midst of all this fine southern cuisine, I’ll take the crawfish everyday, everytime.

Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.
Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.
Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.

I could eat crawfish everyday.
I could eat crawfish everyday.”

President Obama awarded the National Medal of the Arts last week to Allen Toussaint, capping my visit to New Orleans.


Thanks to Julia Kumari Drapkin and Kathleen Flynn for their help.



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A Bilingual Baseball Moment Sparks Twitter Rage

Pedro Gomez interviews Yoenis Cespedes

Pedro Gomez interviews Yoenis Cespedes

A post from my Big Show colleague Jason Margolis

Baseball fans last week were treated to the Major League All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. Cuban-born Yoenis Cespedes with the Oakland A’s won that contest.

The 27-year-old Cuban defected in 2011 to the Dominican Republic to become a Major League Baseball player.

Shortly after winning the contest, Cespedes was interviewed by ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, who switched between English and Spanish for both question and answer.

Not an easy thing to do on live television.

But, Gomez was blasted by many on Twitter for speaking Spanish.


This was not the first time that Gomez has switched between Spanish and English during a television interview. Gomez, who was was born and raised in Miami and is the son of Cuban refugees, grew up speaking both languages.

His talent is more and more in demand these days. According to Major League Baseball, on opening day this year 28 percent of baseball players were foreign born, and almost all of those were from Spanish-speaking countries.

Host Marco Werman spoke with Gomez, who is a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and has covered more than 15 World Series. Gomez defended foreign-born ballplayers who conduct their interviews in Spanish with ESPN.

“If we are able to do something like this, where we can hear their voice and then just do a quick translation for it, I’ve heard from so many people saying: What exactly is the harm?” said Gomez.

“To expect somebody who has been here 18 months or 24 months to already be able to conduct an interview in front of millions of people in a language that’s not theirs, I’d like to know if any of these people (critics of bilingual interviews) moved to Germany, in two years would they have German mastered? And I believe that the answer would be no.”

Gomez wasn’t the only Spanish speaker getting some blowback at the baseball festivities this week. During the All-Star Game on Tuesday, Grammy Award winning singer Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America.” Many people on Twitter criticized the choice of Anthony to sing this iconic American song. Anthony was born and raised in New York and is Puerto Rican.

In June, an 11-year-old Mexican-American boy born and raised in Texas sang the Star-Spangled Banner at Game 3 of the NBA Finals in San Antonio while dressed in his mariachi uniform. He too was the victim of anger and racist remarks on the internet for not being “American enough.”

In a show of support, the San Antonio Spurs invited the boy, Sebastien De La Cruz, for an encore performance in Game 4.

And while it’s tempting to say these incidents reflect a new mood in the United States, they don’t.

In 1968, a young Jose Feliciano, a virtuoso guitarist and singer born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, sang the national anthem at the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Feliciano, who is blind, walked onto the field with his guide dog and guitar, then played a version with a Latin jazz twist.

Felicino was booed and roundly criticized for this, then banned from many American radio stations for several years sending his career into a nosedive.

Many years later, Feliciano wrote this in a blog post about his anthem rendition:

“I played it slowly and meaningfully, feeling the vastness of the stadium and the presence of so many people. But before I had finished my performance I could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch — though I didn’t know what it was about.

Soon afterwards I found out a great controversy was exploding across the country because I had chosen to alter my rendition of the national anthem to better portray my feelings of gratitude. Veterans, I was being told, had thrown their shoes at the television as I sang; others questioned my right to stay in the United States and still others just attributed it to the times, feeling sad for the state of our country. But thankfully, there were many who understood the depth and breadth of my interpretation. Those, young and old, who weren’t jaded by the negativity that surrounded anything new or different. Yes, it was different but I promise you — it was sincere.”

45 years later, Feliciano’s version is widely considered one of the greatest, most memorable renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner” ever recorded.

Feliciano has reprised his rendition many times since, including recently at the Major League Playoffs in San Francisco last year.



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Bigmouth: A One-Man Mashup of the Words of History

Valentijn Dhaenens performs Bigmouth (Photo: Maya Wilsens)

Valentijn Dhaenens performs Bigmouth (Photo: Maya Wilsens)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Katie Bilboa…

The show “Bigmouth” doesn’t exactly feel like the theatrical experience of a lifetime. It’s just 80 minutes of one man talking to you, reading out bits of old speeches.

All real American men love the clash and sting of battle. American men love a winner. – General George S. Patten

But when Steve Marmion saw Bigmouth in Edinburgh last year he knew he had to get it on his stage.

Marmion is artistic director of the edgy Soho Theatre in London’s west end.

“It’s an incredible one man trip through rhetoric beginning 500 BC and finishing today,” he says. “And it explores, examines, and really takes by the scruff of the neck and sings in your face”

Bigmouth is Belgian artist Valentijn Dhaenens.

On stage he wears a suit and darts between five different microphones arranged left to right on a table that stretches the width of the space. As he switches microphones, he subtly adjusts his outfit, gestures and expressions to take on different personas from different centuries.

He transitions from Socrates to Martin Luter King- by way of Joseph Goebbels and the words of Osama Bin Laden.

The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon. – Osama Bin Laden

Valentijn – an established actor in Belgium and the Netherlands – began the project by setting himself the task of reading one speech a day for a year.

“I’ve always been amazed by the fact that only words or language, a thing that you produce with your mouth–we’re the only animals that can do it–can have this much power,” says Valentijn. “If the climate is right and people have the urge to follow leaders and stuff, you can move the world history in a certain direction.”

He says choosing which speeches to include in his performance was an intuitive process. He just knew what needed to sit where.

This intuitive arrangement is integral to Bigmouth’s success, says Lyn Gardner, a theatre critic for The Guardian newspaper.

“One of the reasons why it really works is because of the way that it actually allows one speech to interrogate another,” she says. “So it feels as though what you’re watching is a constant surprise by the way that there is a dialogue set up between the past and the present.”

Valentijin says it’s all about mixing.

“From my point of view I am manipulating again the speeches, like the media is manipulating them, so I just mix two speeches together,” he says. “Some speeches are not in it, not because they’re not good but because they’re not theatrical.”

President Obama is one notable absence.

And there’s only one woman: Ann Coulter.

Valentijn says he needed some distance from the voices he chose, and that the absence of women speaks volumes about how hard it was to find them.

Still, audiences and critics here in London and across the UK have given Bigmouth rave reviews.

And on the heels of that success, there are now plans to take it to Australia, and the US.



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The Language of Corruption, from Cash for Soup to Nokia Box

Billboard in Zambia (Photo: Lars Ploughmann via Wikimedia Commons)

Billboard in Zambia (Photo: Lars Ploughmann via Wikimedia Commons)

Turks call bribes, “cash for soup.” Chinese call them “tokens of gratitude.” Afghans call them, “money for tea.” From one tongue to the next, the language of corruption is strikingly similar in its soothing, euphemistic power.

This report came to us via the BBC World Service program The Fifth Floor. The people there drew on the research of Nicolette Makovicky of Oxford University and David Henig of the University of Kent. Makovicky and Henig are working on a project called The Languages of Informality.



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The Globalization of Yiddish

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Here’s a guest post from reporter Julia Simon

It started in Nairobi when I was talking to some Kenyan friends including Handerson Mwandembo.

Now Handerson doesn’t speak Yiddish, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that sprinkled into his conversation were certain Yiddish words. Words like “schmooze.” I asked him how he would use “schmooze” in a sentence. Handerson gives an example, “He passes exams because he occasionally schmoozed his lecturers.”

And then there was my friend Reham Hussein who also uses Yiddish words. But Reham doesn’t live in Kenya. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.

Reham says she often uses the word “schmuck” (which, in its original meaning, is not the most polite word but it’s commonly used these days). For example: “Okay, you had a problem with a taxi driver today, oh what a schmuck he’s being,” she says. “More or less like a person who doesn’t know what they were doing and they just keep going. Annoying in a certain way.”

I learned these same Yiddish words from my grandmother who grew up in a Jewish part of Melbourne Australia and my grandfather who learned Yiddish from his Brooklyn parents. But where did Reham pick it up?

“I was introduced to it by American media more than anything else.” Reham says On the NBC TV show Friends, she says, they use a lot of Yiddish. “And in Seinfeld they use it, even more than in Friends.”

American pop culture has long been full of Yiddish words. There’s Mel Brooks, of course. In this scene from “Spaceballs” he uses the Yiddish word “bubkes”.

And then there are Americans with no ancestral connection to Yiddish, like singer Barry White. In his famous song “Never Going to Give you up” he uses the word “schtick”.

More recently, rapper Jay Electronica used the word “schmuck” in a song.

Jan Schwartz is a professor of Yiddish at Lund University in Sweden. He says the widespread use of Yiddish in American culture tells us something. “It’s a great example of how the Jewish acculturation in America has been very successful,” he says. “Jews are comfortable in America, they can express their Jewishness publicly it’s not something you have to hide.”

Schwartz says these Yiddish words entered American English through the European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. But Schwarz says it’s not just American English getting the Yiddish treatment. He says there are a good amount of Yiddish words in Dutch too. Yiddish speaking Jews have lived in the Netherlands for hundreds of years.

So I called up some friends in the Hague, Meline Arakelian and Yannick Dierart, and I tried a little experiment with them. I gave them a few Yiddish words and asked if they knew the meanings. “Mazzel”, “Meshuganah”… sure enough they knew them from Dutch.

Meline says she really likes these words, “they are straight from life.” Yannick agrees. “They have a really lived in feel, like a real raw feel, straight from the street, straight from the marketplace. It feels like they’ve been said by centuries of people. A little bit poetic also, lyrical.”

Professor Schwartz thinks they’re onto something, both in the popular appeal of the words and in the lyrical aspect. But he hopes that non Yiddish speakers don’t just stop with the specific words – he hopes they go back to the source: Yiddish literature, Yiddish theater, and Yiddish standup comedy.

“I guess if that’s my mission– a mission impossible but a mission– is to kind of get people to appreciate the richness and the depth of this culture on its own terms,” Schwartz says.

Still, he says he is happy that Yiddish is getting the exposure. He says that in historical European Yiddish literature, you find these non-Jewish characters — the policeman, the postman — speaking Yiddish. The Jewish writers wrote about them with great pride.

The writers were happy that Yiddish wasn’t just a Jewish language– it reached out.



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Twanging and Twickling with the World’s Best Worm Charmers

Contestant at the World Worm Charming Championships (Photo courtesy Mike Forster)

Contestant at the World Worm Charming Championships (Photo courtesy Mike Forster)

The sport of worm charming is admittedly obscure. But its 18 rules have been translated into more than 20 languages. And the techniques its participants use to coax worms to the earth’s surface have resulted in some great additions to the English language: twanging, twickling, twacking and more.

Worms rise when it rains. Worm charmers try to trick worms into believing–if that’s the right word– that it’s raining. They’re not allowed to use water, or to dig the worms up. Instead they make the earth vibrate. Some play musical instruments. The more successful charmers use pitchforks, which they move in various ways (hence twanging, twickling etc.).

The world record holder is Sophie Smith, who was 10-years-old when she (with the help of an older relative) charmed 567 worms to the surface of a three square meter patch of land in a mere 30 minutes. The World Worm Charming Championships website has all the details on this year’s winners, along with a great photo gallery.



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