My favorite TV show at the moment is The Great British Bake-Off. It’s a celebration of home baking, a celebration of tradition, and a celebration of Britishness. Only, well, it isn’t. It’s presented as something that is uniquely or quintessentially British, but aside from the people who are actually in the show, there’s nothing in it that is particularly British. And in many cases, quite the reverse.
In the first episode of this series, the contestants were asked to produce a showstopping version of a British classic from the 1970s – the kitsch classic Black Forest Gateau. Surely anybody who grew up in Britain (me included) recognizes Black Forest Gateau as a cake that is classic British cuisine, which is bizarre given that (as Christian points out), it’s very much a German cake.
This led to more discussion on the use of the word British tacked on to seemingly everything to give things an air of respectability or superiority. So at the supermarket, we’re presented with The Great British Sausage to cook on the Great British Barbecue, which would normally happen in the middle of the British Summer. Like what should simply be the Great Bake-Off, there is nothing inherently British about any of these things, but it seems that in Britain, unless you can stick “The Great British…” in front of something, that thing is worthless.
What caught my curiosity was that until Christian pointed it out I had never noticed it. Now, of course, it irritates the hell out of me, but before that I didn’t even realize it was there. Even curiouser, I didn’t notice that the British do it despite the fact that after moving to Australia I noticed instantly that people in Australia do the exact same thing and it annoys me intensely. It’s alienating and screams of this awful superiority complex that nationalism encourages.
Politicians talk about all Australians (but never all people), the post office is branded Australia Post, the supermarket Woolworths changed its slogan in 2012 from simply The Fresh Food People to Australia’s Fresh Food People. And I noticed all of this, and still thought that we didn’t do that in Britain.
It’s related, I think, to banal nationalism, but it’s not exactly the same thing. During the discussion, Matthew Smith coined the word jingonym – a portmanteau of jingoism and demonym, and I think that captures the concept perfectly. Demonyms that are added to things to assert some national superiority. There’s nothing British about summer in Britain any more than there is anything French about summer in France. The weather isn’t somehow warmer because it’s British, there’s not somehow less chance of rain in June because of Britain. It’s absurd, yet we do it without noticing.
It’s not exclusive to Britain – as I mentioned Australians do it, and Americans are notorious for it – my example here would be the Americans With Disabilities Act – a very important piece of legislation, but one whose name exerts the importance of it being applied to American people only. But I wonder if it is exclusive to the English language (surely not, but I can’t be sure) – another tweet from Christian points out that there’s certainly no such thing as the Great German Summer.
What do we do? Stop attributing value to a nation for the sake of it? I think we should do that, but that’s a hard sell. But I think it could be worth it – let’s try to enjoy things whether they’re Great and British or delicious and from Baden-Württemberg, masquerading as 70s British kitsch.
One thought on “Jingonyms”
Amusingly, I think we might have French-speaking Normans to thank in part for that. They recognised that this was the original homeland of the Breton people* and chose to call it “Great Britain” – and with it came the adjective “Great British”.
Because using this adjective implies greatness in English (when the French really just meant “big” or “original” Britain) I suspect it had and has a tendency to get overused in marketing.
I know that’s only part of the story (there’s no “Great” in Australia or America), but I think it’s certainly a contributing factor. I wonder if it happens in other countries with names like that, such as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, or if there’s a similar marketing effect in countries with names like “República Argentina” (literally “silver republic” in Spanish).
* In the same way they recognised their own Scandinavian origins as “nor(th) men”.