the boo boo muck



Walking home with colleagues after dinner the other night, we passed this cute sign advertising some porcine parking, and I was reminded once again of how fantastic Japanese is for the making of inventive puns. “Boo boo” (ブーブー) is, of course, what pigs say in Japanese and, as my colleagues informed me, it’s also the sound that Japanese children make when imitating the noise of a car. So, obviously, BooBooPARK. (And as you have already probably guessed, there is plenty of “boo boo” pork out there as well.)

Animals, of course, make different sounds in different languages, as I once discovered when my friend Josh and I completely failed to understand a joke that was told to us by our friend Barbara, from Holland. The joke goes something like this:

One pig says to another one, “Knor?” Then the other pig replies, “No thank you, I’m not hungry right now.”

This joke only works if you know both that the sound that Dutch pigs make is “knor,” and that Knorr is also a popular brand of instant soup.

The number of intercultural misunderstandings made possible by these kind of knowledge/language gaps is almost limitless, and the failure to understand when a clever pun might be at work must surely be the basis for any number of “wacky Japan” communiques. Once you understand the language game that’s at work, however, what seems to be at first a culturally endemic penchant for random eccentricity instead needs to be reread as a culturally endemic penchant for inventive language play. The BooBooPARK sign might at first appear to be a completely random collision between pig and car – surely the next best thing  to the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella – but it turns out to have a perfectly systematic inner logic once the wordplay is taken into account.

This classic ANA advertisement featuring a team of deer ripping up the basketball court is a perfect example of a cultural product that will seem unfathomably strange until the pun that holds it all together is properly understood. Why deer instead of bulls, since everyone knows that the famous basketball team from Chicago is the Bulls? The key lies in the fact that the Japanese word for deer, shika (鹿 – pronounced ‘she-ka’), forms the first two phonemes of the Japanese pronunciation of Chicago (シカゴ). And, of course, the final phoneme of シカゴ is ゴ, which is a homonym for “go,” a borrowing from English that is so ubiquitous that it might as well be a Japanese word. So “Chicago” becomes シカゴ, which then becomes 鹿ゴ!, or “Go, Deer!” And since Chicago is associated with basketball, of course the deer are going to be on a basketball team.

The point here is that a lot of assumptions about Japanese “weirdness” are actually based on misunderstandings that become perfectly legible with just a little bit of digging. The assumption that there’s some ineffable and essential quality of Japanese culture that makes it a non-stop assembly line of incomprehensible absurdities just doesn’t really hold water . . . but I’m afraid that pigs will probably take to the skies before uninformed “wacky Japan” memes start disappearing from the Internet.

The name BooBooPARK somehow had the magic power of immediately conjuring the song “Goo Goo Muck” in my head, an earworm that wouldn’t leave me alone for several days after spotting the sign, thus ending up becoming the source for the title of this post. Enjoy.


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