The Zanzibar carnival

From the Economist‘s 2/20/21 issue, p. 39 “Tree trade: Coconut shy”, beginning:

Zanzibar: Why palm trees are driving property moguls nuts

The island of Zanzibar has more than 4m coconut trees, and each one has an owner

There’s a simple and obvious pun in this: in the noun nuts referring to plant products vs. the adjective nuts ‘crazy’.  But then there’s the N + N compound coconut shy (a specifically British item that I was pleased to have recognized), which bears every mark of an Economist playful allusion to a carnival game, but with a play on shy (adjective? the aversive verb?) that bears somehow on fruit tree ownership on Zanzibar. Here I can only report that I don’t get half of the joke.

The Economist‘s jokiness. From my 1/25/19 posting “Pythonic curtain line in The Economist”:

The Economist is ridiculously fond of this sort of jokiness [a Monty Python hook in a serious news story], dropping allusions left and right (unattributed of course), to both high and low culture, to idioms, proverbs and sayings, and so on.

(There’s an appendix below with an inventory of some my postings on the publication’s allusiveness.)

The content of the story. Further from the Economist:

In Zanzibar [the informal name of the island of Unguja], the largest island in a semi-autonomous archipelago [named Zanzibar] off the coast of Tanzania [of which it is a region], coconut palms (and other fruit trees) are handed down through generations. Whereas all land is owned by the government and may only be leased for up to 99 years, fruit trees can be bought and sold.

The lexical items that might be involved. From NOAD:

adj. shy-1: 1 [a] being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people: I was pretty shy at school | a shy smile. [b] [predicative] (shy about) slow or reluctant to do (something): she has never been shy about discussing her efforts to raise aesthetic standards. [c] [in combination] having a dislike of or aversion to a specified thing: not publicity-shy, he offers the camera a friendly look. [d] (of a wild mammal or bird) reluctant to remain in sight of humans: otters are very shy animals. 2 [predicative] (shy ofinformal [a] less than; short of: he won the championship with a score three points shy of a world record. [b] before: he left school just shy of his fourteenth birthday.

verb shy-1: [no object] [a] (especially of a horse) start suddenly aside in fright at an object, noise, or movement: their horses shied at the unfamiliar sight. [b] (shy from) avoid doing or becoming involved in (something) due to nervousness or a lack of confidence: don’t shy away from saying what you think.

verb shy-2: dated verb  [with object] fling or throw (something) at a target: he tore the glasses off and shied them at her.

noun shy-2: an act of flinging or throwing something at a target. PHRASES have a shy at try to hit something, especially with a ball or stone… ORIGIN [of shy-2 verb and noun] late 18th century: of unknown origin.

The coconut shy at the carnival. From Wikipedia:

A coconut shy (or coconut shie) is a traditional game frequently found as a sidestall at funfairs and fêtes. The game consists of throwing wooden balls at a row of coconuts balanced on posts. Typically a player buys three balls and wins when each coconut is successfully dislodged. In some cases other prizes may be won instead of the coconuts.

The word “shy” in this context means to toss or throw. [AZ: actually, it’s the noun shy-2 above, a nouning of the relevant verb.]


(#1) (caption from Wikipedia) A traditional coconut shy run by Albert Harris. This particular stall was established by his mother, Mrs E. Harris, in 1936.


(#2) From the Prop Factory site, their Purple Vintage Coconut Shy

The origins of the game are unclear, but early references to it appear in the late 1800s. It probably derives from the game of Aunt Sally [a traditional English game usually played in pub gardens and fairgrounds, in which players throw sticks or battens at a model of an old woman’s head], with coconuts being seen as an exotic prize in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. The National Fairground Archive holds a photograph of a coconut shy dating from 1890. The game is mentioned by H. G. Wells in his book The Invisible Man in 1897, by E. Nesbit in The Story of the Treasure Seekers in 1899. [A]nd by P.G. Wodehouse in his short story, “The Purity of the Turf”. The term is first listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1903.

The coconut shy is a traditional carnival game. On the genus, from Wikipedia:

A carnival game is a game of chance or skill that can be seen at a traveling carnival, charity fund raiser, amusement arcade and amusement park, or on a state and county fair midway. They are also commonly played on holidays such as Mardi Gras, Saint Patrick’s Day, and Oktoberfest.

Carnival games are usually operated on a “pay per play” basis. Prices may range from a small amount, for example 25 cents, to a few dollars per play. Most games offer a small prize to the winner. Prizes may include items like stuffed animals, toys, or posters.

… Games of skill … may test a players aim at hitting a target with either a ball or a weapon. Some games of this type are the “Cross Bow Shoot”, the “Milk Bottle” game, or the “Balloon and Dart” game.

The closest American parallel to the coconut shy would appear to be the milk bottle game. From the Mental Floss article “5 Comonly Fixed Carnival Games” by Erik Van Rheenen on 7/17/13:

Knock Over the Milk Bottles

It’s probably the most straightforward game on the midway: A carnival worker stacks three milk bottles in a pyramid, hands you a softball, and you cash in on your best Nolan Ryan impression, right? It’s not usually that simple. Bottles stacked on the bottom are often filled with lead and weigh in at 10 pounds, and the softball you’re given puts an emphasis on soft — they may be filled with cork to make them lighter.

Here’s one more trick to watch for: If one bottle sits more jutted out than the rest (even by just half an inch, according to a Today Show hidden camera investigation), it absorbs the force of the ball from the others when you give it your best toss. [The top prize is usually a stuffed animal]

Appendix. On my postings on the Economist‘s verbal allusions (there are also visual allusions, and playful syntax).

on 4/7/15, in “Allusion in The Economist”

on 1/25/19 in “Pythonic curtain line in The Economist”

on 2/13/19, in “Allusions to titles past”

on 4/13/19, in “Easter egg quotations”

on 4/22/19, in “The Easter egg in the salt mine”

on 5/18/19, in “Ostentatiously playful allusions”

on 6/17/19, in “Trix is for kids”: relationships between allusion and model: formal and content

One Response to “The Zanzibar carnival”

  1. Stewart Kramer Says:

    “The island of Zanzibar has more than 4m coconut trees”?
    My first impression was that the trees measure more than 4 meters high, which wouldn’t be very tall trees. Of course it’s 4 million, and the British use less punctuation on abbreviations.

    I prefer the metric convention of capital letters for big multiples (M=million “mega-“) and lowercase for divisions (m=1/1000 “milli-“).

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