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Vuvuzela! A Beautiful Word for a Nightmare of a Horn

At times, it seems like there is little that brings us together: Conflicts over religion, race, and resources never seem to end, and the common threads of our collective humanity are ever-unraveling.

And so, thank you, vuvuzela.

Much like a nuke-happy Martian armada might create world harmony under an anti-Martian umbrella, this nasty noisemaker has united humanity for a far sillier cause: We are as one in despising this hellacious horn. Widespread annoyance has put the word “vuvuzela” on the lips of just about everyone in the United States and beyond, launching a strong 2010 Word of the Year candidate and becoming the most noteworthy linguistic development of the World Cup.

There are conflicting reports as to the origin of “vuvuzela.” As noted by Nancy Friedman, it goes back about 30 years at least, may have started as a children’s toy, and could be related to words for “making noise” or “shower” (perhaps for its resemblance to a showerhead or tendency to drench bystanders in sound). As with so many terms, the real origin seems lost behind the couch cushions of time, though the idea that “vuvu” mimics the horn’s blast is hard to resist. The murkiness of the etymology is contrasted by the clear and sharp glee that first-time vuvuzela-hearers take in describing its honk. These descriptions comprise a boatload of recent uses.

For example, the Ban the Vuvuzela website calls it “an annoying distraction that has been likened to a deafening mix of angry elephants trumpeting and a fog horn.” Linguist Geoffrey Pullum colorfully wondered, “Why does it sound as if several dozen propeller-drived airplanes have started up their engines in the stadium? Has someone dropped one of the commentator's mikes into a huge beehive?”

Though David Waters points out the religious symbolism of the vuvuzela, he is more compelling when describing its downside: “A massive swarm of bees. Africa's revenge. The instrument from hell. World Cup soccer fans have found a number of descriptive ways to express their dismay over the vuvuzela noisemakers and their relentless, monotonous B-flat buzzing.” The comments on this article include some particularly creative descriptions, such as “the sound of a swarm of bees simultaneously emitting flatulence.” Vuvuzela-describing is right up there with celebrity-mocking as a top Internet activity right now.

Beyond such descriptions, the Twittersphere has been abuzz with vuvuzela jokes since the World Cup began, and the word itself has inspired joking interpretations that it sounds like either an STD or the female nether-regions. But annoyance-fueled snark and soccer fever only partly explain the overwhelming success of the word. This may have something to do with the reduplication of “vuvu,” which puts it in the same category as English words such as “doo-doo,” “bye-bye,” “boo-boo,” “brouhaha,” “hanky-panky,” and “pooh-pooh.” Reduplicative words are simply fun to say—they tap into our natural desire to play with language, much like rhyming compounds. A joke like “Vuvu Zela would make an awesome drag name” hints at another truth: We may hate the vuvuzela, but I think we kind of love “vuvuzela.”

As for the future, I bet words such as “vuvuzela-like” and “vuvuzela-ish” will continue to be used, sometimes to describe baseball teams attempting to recreate the crazed World Cup atmosphere: “Marlins' fans get loud with vuvuzela-like horns.” Weirder uses will also emerge, such as a would-be inspirer of salespeople who asks the question “Are your sales approaches ever Vuvuzela-ish?” This means, among other things, “Are you even annoying people you're trying to engage, simply because you're so focused on what comes out of your trumpet, rather than asking them what music they'd like to hear?”

Who knows where the word will turn up next? Maybe “Don’t be a vuvuzela” will join childhood maxims such as “No one like likes a tattletale” and “He who smelt it, dealt it.” Words, like swarms of bees, often end up in surprising places. And if that Martian invasion ever does take place, the vuvuzela just might be the thing to scare them off.

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