The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

I am pretty sure everyone has heard about Freedom Fries, and how the Americans recently named the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys1, mainly owing to the US perception of French cowardice at war and the French predilection to oppose the US at various international fora. Of course, the Americans have forgotten that, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, the French stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them, claiming We Are All Americans. That, though, is a different story entirely.

What is fascinating about the renaming of popular foods - especially in the US, based on the political exigencies of the moment - is that this has been going on a long time. I recently discovered that during the First World War, many states banned the public use of the German language despite the German-speaking population being in the majority in some of them. At the same time, the masses didn't want to give up sauerkraut, so they renamed it to, no points for guessing, Liberty Cabbage2.

Animosity towards the Germans predates that against the French. For a considerable length of time, the Americans recalled the great support offered to them by France during their war of independence against the British. Germans began immigrating to the New World from 1683 and in such large numbers that a state such as Pennsylvania had a majority German-speaking population. Indeed, this prompted an uncharacteristically xenophobic outburst from Benjamin Franklin:
Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, an more than they can acquire our Complexion?
The German-Americans - all credit to them - didn't flinch under this antipathy towards them and continued to arrange public displays of their identity, running social clubs and societies. This ended with the Great War and the ban on the public use of the language that I mentioned above.

An associated rumour has been doing the rounds in the US almost inception: that the official language of the US almost became German3, and that only a tie-breaking vote by a loyal German-American representative in Congress named Frederick Muehlenberg is supposed to have prevented the bill from becoming law in 1795. All garbage!
German was widely spoken in Philadelphia when the Congress met there. And it's true that a group of farmers from Virginia in the 1790s petitioned for a German translation of some American laws. But the cliffhanger vote that saved English? It never happened3.

1. First usage in a Simpsons episode! Later co-opted by right-wing commentators and politicos.
2. Matthew Flaming, From Liberty Cabbage to Freedom Fries, or the ethical crisis of the contemporary American Left, 2003.
3. Nancy P. Nenno, Did German Almost Become the Language of the US?, in The 5 Minute Linguist, edited by E.M. Rickerson & B. Hilton, 2006.


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