“Humbergers” and Ecclesiastes, Orwell and Strunk, Articulation and a Dollop of Self-Promotion
Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 13, 2009
Mimas Foods: Flafel, Humberger, Shaourma, Ships Pataos, All Kind Of, Meats
A recent article in the New York Times reported on the opening of a time capsule of early-20th-century recordings of arias found sealed away in the basement of the Paris Opera. My own time capsules are more prosaic — the surfaces of my desks in Sofia, Istanbul, and Brooklyn.
While tidying up papers during a recent visit to Bulgaria, I found the treasure portrayed above, a mid-1990’s plastic take-away bag from Mimas Foods in Sofia. The bag is a relic of a turning point in the economic and social history of Bulgaria and much of Eastern Europe. It is also a snapshot of a moment in the transformation of English from the spoken and literary language of the United Kingdom, North America, India, Australasia, and parts of Africa into the awkward amalgam of English-language vocabulary and the grammar and styles of a score of languages that has emerged as the lingua franca of trade, administration, news, scholarship, and socializing in the European Union and contiguous lands.
Popular enthusiasm for the collapse of Soviet-communist rule in Eastern Europe twenty-years ago was fueled as much by a hunger for the imagined jujus of western life as by political visions or ideals. Dreams of big cars, big spending, and fast food — the same mix that now sinks the economies and clogs the arteries of much of the world — were among the drivers. Not that there was no fast food in Bulgaria under communism. But the pleasures of local shkembe corba (tripe soup), Bira-Skara (beer halls serving bread- and lard-laden ground meat patties), and breakfast- and lunch-time princessa (open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches strewn with ground pork ) were dimmed by a simmering Balkan sense of resentment at something missed.
The first generation of Western-inspired fast-food to sweep free-market Bulgaria was based on the hamburger … of sorts. Local entrepreneurs operating from apartment-house ground-floor garages and from sidewalk-level basement windows sold thick fried slices of domestic mortadella served on chalky white rolls. The next generation came in the early-1990s with the arrival in Bulgaria of Syrians, Lebanese, and North Africans and the opening of shwarma (döner kebab) stands. Mimas Foods was among the first. Its location was premier– on a downtown multi-thoroughfare intersection diagonally across from Popa (the priest), a popular meeting place named after a nearby statue of Patriarch Eftimi, an iconic creator of modern Bulgarian language and, through it, Bulgarian national identity.
The iconography of the vintage Mimas take-out bag reveals the aspirations of consumers and proprietors both. Note the vertical spit overflowing with tidily arranged thick slabs of meat, the dagger-like knife raised ready to carve, and the stereotyped middle-eastern features of the professionally garbed chef. But it is the use of international English that catapulted the fare of Mimas from the improvised and local into the realm of coveted, truly international, fast-food:
- FLAFEL -
- HUMBERGER -
- SHIPS PATAOS -
- ALL KIND OF -
- MEATS -
Ecclesiastes, Orwell and Strunk
When I left Sofia two weeks ago, I put the Mimas bag into my computer case next to two books I had brought along to read on the journey: a collection of essays by George Orwell (“Why I Write,” also mentioned in this post, below) and Strunk and White’s famed “Elements of Style,” which I make a point of rereading every several years. Coincidentally, one of the classic examples of powerful and direct writing style in the latter book is drawn from one of the essays in the former.* In it, Orwell compares the evocative power of a passage from the King James rendering of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes with the substance of the very same passage as it is likely to be expressed in present-day English as written by international commercial, bureaucratic, and academic types:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.
Articulation and a Dollop of Self-Promotion
Wrıtıng is articulatıon. Not even meticulous attention to style or choice of words can dısguise incomplete thoughts, lack of clear meaning or intent, or absence of honesty and passion. In Orwell’s words:
The great enemy of clear language is insıncerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as ıt were instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
So, let me clear away the ink and get down to a very direct attempt at self-promotion …
As of April 1, I will be back in (forgive me the word) the market-place offering companies, institutions, and individuals the world over — in the private and public sectors and in the sciences, education, broadcasting and the arts — communications consultancy, project support, and writing and editorial services (including selected translation projects from Dutch to English). I also will be on-call as a personal and organizational advisor specialized in articulating goals, analyzing strategies, charting paths, and achieving change.
Am I mad to be offering such services as we enter “the worst crisis since the Great Depression?” Not at all. It is exactly at such times that ideas must be reexamined and refined, operating environments clearly described, and messages communicated clearly and incisively. To do otherwise courts failure. Had companies, governments, and “the media” done so over the last years, we might not be in the mess we are now.
For further information, write to me at email@example.com. For information on related visual and photographic services, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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*An additional coincidence: An article on Orwell and his essays — Such, Such Was Eric Blair — appears in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books.