Ever since I first encountered the famous painting by René Magritte of a smoker’s pipe under which the artist wrote with urgent clarity that “This is not a pipe” (to be honest, what he wrote was not initially clear to me at all since he wrote it in French), I have been interested in the intentional self-subversion of what appear at first to be straightforward messages. Scratch that; I probably got into it as early as junior high school, when my friend loaned me his copy of a book by the British comedy team Monty Python, called Monty Python’s Big Red Book—a rather thin paperback with an azure blue cover.
There’s probably an actual linguistic term for willfully referring to a thing or concept as something it is not. But here, let’s call it “cowcrap”—Convoluting Oppositional Words for Commercial, Regulatory, or Aesthetic Purposes. A classic example of an aesthetic purpose would be Shakespeare’s “Juliet is the sun,” which she’s not. Regulatory examples could be government “taxes” on cigarettes that are essentially fines for polluting the air and the streets (as far as I know pipes are exempt); or a naval fleet’s “training exercise” that takes place just a few kilometers off the coast of a hostile country.
Commercial applications of cowcrap are abundant in Japan. Perhaps you’ve seen signs or labels employing English words or phrases and wondered, “Are the people who use English this way really trying to say what the words appear to be saying?” Certainly, translation errors can occur. But often it seems as though there is intention behind commercial misuse of a global language that nowadays, frankly, belongs to everyone. We can all think of examples: “Sweat” that’s a soft drink; “Hard Off” that’s a secondhand electronics shop; or “Goon” that’s a diaper for your cherished toddler. Once, on my way to work, I noticed an artistic wooden sign saying “Cheesecake” outside a tiny, recently opened shop. My natural first guess was that the store was a bakery of sorts specializing in, oh, I don’t know, maybe cheesecake. Sadly, though, I had to set that assumption aside because “cowcrap” warned me that the word on the sign did not guarantee what kind of store it actually was. For all I knew, it could have been selling hair products, seedy comic books, or fishing gear.
I’ll admit that messages can be creatively misused to great effect. The Love Drug Store is still one of my favorite shops in Okayama, although cotton swabs are the only things I’ve had the guts to buy there. Also, a small yakitori (grilled chicken) place downtown used to bill itself as “Japan’s Number One WORST Yakitori” (strangely, it went out of business a few years ago).
Misrepresenting meaning for memorable effects, however, cannot be as good as enhancing original meaning for the same purpose. If you can pick better words for your message without betraying their semanticity, it’s as if you’re running on higher octane linguistic fuel. I found a great example of this in, of all places, a public restroom. A brand of toilet paper I often see at my place of work has a name, Itoman, which could be the subject of an exegesis all its own, with its two-tone letters intimating the phrase “I to man.” The particular variety of Itoman offered that day was called “Core Self.” In one sense, this term was as plain as any could be as to what it wanted to describe: a roll of toilet paper with no separate cardboard core that had to be disposed of in a different fashion.
However, thinking more about the phrase “core self”—I had nothing better to do for a few minutes—I began to unravel deeper meanings beneath the outer layers of commercial fluff. How can something’s core be itself, I thought. If the thing is its own core, then what necessarily does its exterior “non-coreness” consist of? If I opened a roll and started wrapping it around my head, would I be its core? Would the “self” then be me? Am I indeed my own core? Am “I to man” as man is to me? (In the men’s room, at least?)
I had a class to teach, so I flushed and left the rest of my questions there. But I’m still intrigued by the inside-out onion skin philosophies that came to me that day from “Core Self.” Better still, they gave me a great idea for a new brand of toilet paper that could be the ultimate in ecological benefit. I’ll call it “This Is Not Toilet Paper.”