Cultural references

Ann Burlingham has written me about the headline

Mau Mauing the Flesh Eaters

on Jennifer Schuessler’s review of Jonathan Safran Froer’s Eating Animals (in the November 15 New York Times Book Review). She just didn’t get it. But Wikipedia’s article on the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s had the crucial clue, all the way at the bottom: a reference to Tom Wolfe’s 1970 article “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” (combined with another Wolfe article to make the 1971 book Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers).

Cultural references are the very devil.

It turns out that allusions to the Wolfe title have been around ever since 1970, and continue to appear in considerable numbers (though most aren’t as closely patterned on Wolfe’s title as the headline on Schuessler’s review), and that the Wolfe title has gotten the verb mau-mau into dictionaries.

First, the dictionaries. The OED has an entry (March 2001 draft revision) for the transitive verb mau-mau (and for the related nouns mau-mauer and mau-mauing), marking it as colloquial and chiefly North American, glossing it ‘to use menacing or intimidating tactics against; to intimidate, harass; to terrorize’, giving Wolfe’s 1970 article as the first citation, and tracing the word back to the Mau Mau Association (a secret society in Kenya, originating among the Kikuyu, advocating armed resistance to British rule), so that mau-mau is a verbing of Mau Mau). NOAD2 and AHD4 also have entries.

The headline on Schuessler’s review is about as close to Wolfe’s title as you can get: mau mauing the N Vers, where N Vers is a synthetic compound in which the N is interpreted as the direct object of the V (no hyphen in mau mauing, but then hyphenation in written English is often a sometime thing).

A Google search on {“mau-mauing the”} yields a large number of hits, even when pages mentioning Wolfe or Schuessler are excluded: at least three in October 2009 (including “mau-mauing the legislators”), at least two in September 2009 (including “mau-mauing the Department of Education”), and then back through 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 1999 — just listing examples that came up in the first few pages. Almost all are from journalistic writing (including editorials, opinion pieces, and the like), in print or on-line. A few examples: “mau-mauing the mom and pops”, “mau-mauing the Marines”, “mau-mauing the judiciary”.

So it seems that the Wolfe title has served, in some quarters, as a model for playful allusions. That makes these examples look snowclone-like — except that they could just be occurrences of the verb mau-mau, as in these examples from the OED, which don’t have the verb used in a gerundive nominal:

1970 [Wolfe himself]: going downtown to mau-mau the bureaucrats

1971: has been mau-maued

1986: could not be mau-maued

1990: mau-maus the white coats of the medical establishment

I’m then inclined to see “mau-mauing the Marines” and the like as just involving the verb mau-mau, rather than as instances of a snowclone originating with the Wolfe title. “Mau mauing the meat eaters”, though, is pretty clearly a play on Wolfe’s title — but then a playful allusion does not a snowclone make.

6 Responses to “Cultural references”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    “Cultural references are the very devil.”

    Translating them is even worse.

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