A few months ago, people were posting a lot about the Netherlands on Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Wake up, sleeping people of the Netherlands!” said one post. Others lamented that the people of Amsterdam wanted their tulips back.
These Chinese social media users aren’t expressing a nascent interest in all things Dutch. They’re talking about recent protests over frozen bank deposits in the province of Henan. Ordinarily, discussions about a controversial topic like this would be censored on Chinese social media, and posts containing the word “Henan” could be blocked or deleted. But “Henan” (河南) sounds a lot like “Helan” (荷兰), the Mandarin word for the Netherlands. By swapping the names around, people were able to get past the censors and keep the conversation going.
I love this article. The use of homonyms and puns to work around online censorship by Chinese citizens is as innovative and heartwarming as its necessity is horrifying and tragic. If you’re wondering exactly how similar 河南 (“Henan”, the name of the Chinese province in which authorities abused social distancing laws and used violence to prevent rural bank customers from withdrawing their own money) and 荷兰 (“Helan”, The Netherlands) sound, have a listen for yourself:
Unless you speak Mandarin already, you’ll might struggle to even pinpoint which is which in that recording.
This clever and imaginative use of language to try to sidestep surviellance feels like a modern adaptation of cryptolects like Polari or rhyming slang as used in the UK for the same purpose. But writing in Han characters online seems to provide an amazingly diverse way to encode meaning that an in-the-know human can parse, but an automated machine or an uninformed human censor can not. The story about the use of the word for “paratrooper” on Chinese social media, touched upon in the article linked above and expanded elsewhere, is particularly enjoyable.
Anyway, after you’ve read the article and you’re ready for a whole new rabbit whole to explore, I’d like to kickstart you by introducing you to Totoiana, a Pig Latin-like (second-syllable onwards, then first syllable) dialect spoken with fluency exclusively in a single Romanian village, and nobody knows why.
My favourite thing about geese… is the etymologies of all the phrases relating to geese. There’s so many, and they’re all amazing. I started reading about one, then – silly goose that I am – found another, and another, and another…
Barnacle geese are so-called because medieval Europeans believed that they grew out of a kind of barnacle called a goose barnacle, whose shell pattern… kinda, sorta looks like barnacle goose feathers? Barnacle geese breed on remote Arctic islands and so people never saw their chicks, which – coupled with the fact that migration wasn’t understood – lead to a crazy myth that lives on in the species name to this day. Incidentally, this strange belief led to these geese being classified as a fish for the purpose of fasting during Lent, and so permitted. (This from the time period that brought us the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, of course. I’ve written about both previously.)
Gooseberries may have a similar etymology. Folks have tried to connect it to old Dutch or Germanic words, but inconclusively: given that they appear at the opposite end of the year to some of the migratory birds goose, the same kind of thinking that gave us “barnacle geese” could be seen as an explanation for gooseberries’ name, too. But really: nobody has a clue about this one. Fun fact: the French name for the fruit is groseille à maquereau, literally “mackerel currant”!
A gaggle is the collective noun for geese, seemingly derived from the sound they make. It’s also been used to describe groups of humans, especially if they’re gossiping (and disproportionately directed towards women). “Gaggle” is only correct when the geese are on the ground, by the way: the collective noun for a group of airborne geese is skein or plump depending on whether they’re in a delta shape or not, respectively. What a fascinating and confusing language we have!
John Stephen Farmer helps us with a variety of goose-related sexual slang though, because, well, that was his jam. He observes that a goose’s neck was a penis and gooseberries were testicles, goose-grease is vaginal juices. Related: did you ever hear the euphemism for where babies come from “under a gooseberry bush“? It makes a lot more sense when you realise that gooseberry bush was slang for pubic hair.
An actor whose performance wasn’t up to scratch might describe the experience of being goosed; that is – hissed at by the crowd. Alternatively, goosing can refer to a a pinch on the buttocks possibly in reference to geese pecking humans at about that same height.
If you have a gander at something you take a good look at it. Some have claimed that this is rhyming slang – “have a look” coming from “gander and duck” – but I don’t buy it. Firstly, why wouldn’t it be “goose and duck” (or “gander and drake“, which doesn’t rhyme with “look” at all). And fake, retroactively-described rhyming roots are very common: so-called mockney rhyming slang! I suspect it’s inspired by the way a goose cranes its neck to peer at something that interests it! (“Crane” as a verb is of course also a bird-inspired word!)
Goosebumps might appear on your skin when you’re cold or scared, and the name alludes to the appearance of plucked poultry. Many languages use geese, but some use chickens (e.g. French chair de poule, “chicken flesh”). Fun fact: Slavic languages often use anthills as the metaphor for goosebumps, such as Russian мурашки по коже (“anthill skin”). Recently, people talk of tapping into goosebumps if they’re using their fear as a motivator.
The childrens game of duck duck goose is played by declaring somebody to be a “goose” and then running away before they catch you. Chasing – or at risk of being chased by! – geese is common in metaphors: if somebody wouldn’t say boo to a goosethey’re timid. A wild goose chase (yet another of the many phrases for which we can possibly thank Shakespeare, although he probably only popularised this one) begins without consideration of where it might end up.
If those children are like their parents, you might observe that a wild goose never laid a tame egg: that traits are inherited and predetermined.
Until 1889, the area between Blackfriars and Tower Bridge in London – basically everything around Borough tube station up to the river – was considered to be outside the jurisdiction of both London and Surrey, and fell under the authority of the Bishop of Winchester. For a few hundred years it was the go-to place to find a prostitute South of the Thames, because the Bishop would license them to be able to trade there. These prostitutes were known as Winchester geese. As a result, to be bitten by a Winchestergoose was to contract a venereal disease, and goosebumps became a slang term for the symptoms of some such diseases.
Perennial achillea ptarmica is known, among other names, as goose tongue, and I don’t know why. The shape of the plant isn’t particularly similar to that of a goose’s tongue, so I think it might instead relate to the effect of chewing the leaves, which release a spicy oil that might make your tongue feel “pecked”? Goose tongue can also refer to plantago maritima, whose dense rosettes do look a little like goose tongues, I guess. Honestly, I’ve no clue about this one.
If you’re sailing directly downwind, you might goose-wing your sails, putting the mainsail away from the wind and the jib towards it, for balance and to easily maintain your direction. Of course, a modern triangular-sailed boat usually goes faster broad reach (i.e. at an angle of about 45º to the wind) by enough that it’s faster to zig-zag downwind rather than go directly downwind, but I can see how one might sometimes want to try this anatidaetian maneuver.
Geese make their way all over our vocabulary. If it’s snowing, the old woman is plucking her goose. If it’s fair to give two people the same thing (and especially if one might consider not doing so on account of their sex), you might say that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, which apparentlyused to use the word “sauce” instead of “good”. I’ve no idea where the idea of cooking someone’s goose comes from, nor why anybody thinks that a goose step march might look anything like the way a goose walks waddles.
My mum just used the phrase “we’d be in for a bucket of custard.” I’m not sure if this is a real phrase or she’s having a stroke. Please advise.
My mother once described her new cat, which was very skinny when she got it, as looking “like a bag of choppy”. I asked her what “choppy” was and she admitted that she didn’t actually know – all she knew is that her mother used to describe things that looked like that cat did as looking “like a bag of choppy”. We tried to look it up or work it out but we couldn’t get to the bottom of it – what is “choppy” except for something that comes in a bag and looks like a scrawny cat? – and so we decided to ask her mother, who was then still alive.
My gran was a proper Hartlepudlian, the kind that you could genuinely imagine hanging a monkey, and she was full of old phrases that defied definition. If you ate with your mouth open she’d tell you off for “clacking”, babies were “baens”, and we were always told not to sit on cold doorsteps or else we’d get “chin cough” (I’ve no idea to this day what chin cough is; all I know about it is the mechanism of transmission, and I’m skeptical of that!). Anyway, on our next visit to the North East we resolved to ask my grandmother what exactly was a “bag of choppy”.
Turns out she didn’t know either; it was just a phrase her mother had used.
I’d like to share with you the worst joke that I ever heard. Those of you who’ve heard me tell jokes before might think that you’ve already suffered through the worst joke I ever heard, but you honestly haven’t. The worst joke I ever heard was simply too awful to share. But maybe now is the time.
To understand the joke, though, you must first understand where I grew up. For most of my school years, I lived in Preston, in the North-West of England. After first starting school in Scotland, and having been brought up by parents who’d grown up in the North-East, I quickly found that there were a plethora of local dialect differences and regional slang terms that I needed to get to grips with in order to fit into my new environment. Pants, pumps, toffee, and bap, among others, had a different meaning here, along with entirely new words like belm (an insult), gizzit (a contraction of “give it [to me]”), pegging it (running away, perhaps related to “legging it”?), and kegs (trousers). The playground game of “tag” was called “tig”. “Nosh” switched from being a noun to a verb. And when you wanted somebody to stop doing something, you’d invariably use the imperative “pack it in!”
And it’s that last one that spawned the worst joke I ever heard. Try, if you can, to imagine the words “pack it in”, spoken quickly, in a broad Lancashire accent, by a young child. And then appreciate this exchange, which was disturbingly common in my primary school:
Child 1: Pack it in!
Child 2: Pakis don’t come in tins. They come from India.
In case it’s too subtle for you, the “joke” stems from the phonetic similarity, especially in the dialect in question, between the phrase “pack it in” and the phrase “paki tin”.
In case you need to ask why this is the worst joke I ever heard, allow me to explain in detail everything that’s wrong with it.
It’s needlessly racist
Now I don’t believe that race is necessarily above humour – and the same goes for gender, sexuality, religion, politics, etc. But there’s difference between using a racial slur to no benefit (think: any joke containing the word “nigger” or “polak”), and jokes which make use of race. Here’s one of my favourite jokes involving race:
The Pope goes on a tour of South Africa, and he’s travelling in his Popemobile alongside a large river when he catches sight of a black man in the river. The man is struggling and screaming as he tries in vain to fight off a huge crocodile. Suddenly, the Pope sees two white men leap into the water, drag the man and the crocodile to land, and beat the crocodile to death with sticks, saving the black man’s life.
The Pope, impressed, goes over to where the two men are standing. “That was the most wonderful thing to do,” his holiness says. “You put yourselves at risk to kill the crocodile and save the life of your fellow man. I can see that it is men like you who will rebuild this country as an example to the world of true racial harmony.”
The Pope goes on his way. “Who was that?” asks one of the white men.
The other replies: “That was the Pope. He is in direct communication with God. He knows everything.”
“Maybe,” says the first, “But he knows fuck all about crocodile fishing!”
The butt of this joke is not race, but racists. In this example, the joke does not condone the actions of the ‘crocodile fishers’: in fact, it contrasts them (through the Pope’s mistake in understanding) to the opposite state of racial harmony. It does not work to reinforce stereotypes. Oh, and it’s funny: that’s always a benefit in a joke. Contrast to jokes about negative racial sterotypes or using offensive terms for no value other than for the words themselves: these types of jokes can serve to reinforce the position of actual racists who see their use (and acceptance) as reinforcement for their position, and – if you enjoy them – it’s worth asking yourself what that says about you, or might be seen to say about you.
It’s an incredibly weak pun
What would “paki tin” even mean, if that were what the first child had meant? It’s not as if we say “beans tin” or “soup tin” or “peas tin”. Surely, if this piece of wordplay were to make any sense whatsoever, it would have to be based on the phrase “tin of pakis”, which I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said before, ever.
To illustrate, let me have a go at making a pun-based joke without the requirement that the pun actually make sense:
Youdough not understand how jokes are supposed to work, do you?
You see? Not funny (except perhaps in the most dadaist of humour circles). It’s not funny because Yoodough isn’t actually a name. The format of the joke is ruined by balancing a pun against a phrase that just doesn’t exist. Let’s try again, but this time actually make the pun make sense (note that it’s still a knock knock joke, and therefore it probably still isn’t funny, except in an academic way):
Yuri-ly expect me to laugh at this, do you?
It’s stupidly inaccurate
Let’s just stop and take a look at that punchline again, shall we: “Pakis… come from India.” Even ignoring everything else that’s wrong with this joke, this is simply… wrong! Now that’s not to say that jokes always have to reflect reality. Here’s a classic joke that doesn’t:
Lion woke up one morning with an overbearing desire to remind his fellow creatures that he was king of the jungle. So he marched over to a monkey and roared: “Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?”
“You are, Master,” said the monkey, quivering.
Then the lion came across a wildebeest.
“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.
“You are, Master,” answered the wildebeest, shaking with fear.
Next the lion met an elephant.
“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.
The elephant grabbed the lion with his trunk, slammed him repeatedly against a tree, dropped him like a stone and ambled off.
“All right,” shouted the lion. “There’s no need to turn nasty just because you don’t know the answer.”
Aside from the suspension of disbelief required for the dialogues to function at all – none of these animals are known to be able to talk! – there’s an underlying issue that lions don’t live in jungles. But who cares! That’s not the point of the joke.
In the case of the “paki” joke, the problem could easily be corrected by saying “…they come from Pakistan.” It’d still probably be the worst joke I ever heard, but at least it’d be trying to improve itself. I remember being about 8 or 9 and explaining this to a classmate, but he wasn’t convinced. As I remember it, he called me a belm and left it at that.
So that’s the worst joke I ever heard. And now you’ve heard it, you can rest assured that every joke you hear from me – no matter how corny, obscure, long-winded or pun-laden – will at least be better than that one.
Here’s one last joke, for now:
A woman gets on a bus with her baby. “Ugh!” says the bus driver, “That’s got to be the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!”
The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming and close to tears. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me! I’m so upset!”
“You go up there and tell him off,” the man replies, “Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”