This may seem like an esoteric blog post, and perhaps it is. Yet when I grew up in the 1960-1970’s and again today circa 2020 there were/are a great deal of civil protest, discourse, and problem solving around relations between groups. In both eras the focus was on the suffering of two main groups of the U.S. citizenry : blacks and women, with vastly different sets of issues. To some extent other aggrieved minorities, or the poor, or other suffering groups were included in the social movement.
When comparing various groups of the U.S. citizenry, we see large gaps on statistical government measures of well-being and suffering. What can be done about these inequities? In terms of social engineering, first we need to take ourselves out of the equation. It’s not about us or our experiences. There many things we need to improve as a society but major inequities should be a very high priority. That said, I believe in the individual as the highest order concept for intelligent life, so I prefer all programs be aimed at the individual citizen, meaning absent any group membership. That is what we usually do. Otherwise, if it were a public program, it would be discriminatory and immediately challenged as a constitutional violation. I don’t believe in a zero sum game or that improving the lot of one group means taking from another group. I believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
When the citizenry rise in support of a movement, in the majority, with a high degree of energy and frustration, and sense of injustice, then change happens. It’s a chaotic process not unlike the slipping of the Earth’s tectonic plates and the resulting earthquakes. The change may arise anywhere along the fault line and in a variety of forms. Some of the change is more direct in the form of laws and programs. Some is more indirect in the form of symbols and language. We see this playing out as of this writing as symbols and statues of systemic racism are being removed. From Confederate symbols, to military base names honoring Confederates, to toppling of statues of slave owners, and even to the removal of the last few remaining racist sports team names. Those are all large oppressive symbols, but even our language contains memes that are potentially painful to others.
Does being woke mean you need to eschew colloquialisms in your speech and writing?
This thought came to me tonight when I was writing. I typed a seemingly benign colloquialism I picked up as a child. Oh yeah, it was ‘cotton candy‘. Then I thought ‘wait!’ in a moment of self-editing as I lifted my fingers off the keyboard, ‘wait!’ Is the word and image of spun cotton a colloquialism when used in the phrase ‘cotton candy’? Well surely it is, because people from diverse eras, groups, races, countries, economic strata, media exposure, generation, or online feed exposure, etc., may or may not be familiar with the etymology of the phrase ‘cotton candy‘. I could be wrong but my guess is that it originates from the U.S. deep south where the spun candy looked like finely spun cotton which looks so beautiful. Let me google that for myself. brb…
Ok, if you don’t already know this, it’s hard to believe, but cotton candy was first invented by a dentist and a confectioner. Hmm. Ok. I’m thinking the goals were not to improve well-being and reduce suffering! I think it was more about lining their pockets. But, carry-on we must.
You can read all about it at :
“Cotton candy as we know it was first created in 1897 when a dentist named William Morrison joined forces with a confectioner by the name of John C. Wharton. Together, the duo created a machine that spun heated sugar through a screen, creating the floss-like texture that we all know and love.”THE HISTORY OF COTTON CANDY
But where did the term ‘cotton’ come from in ‘cotton candy’?
New competitors brought new changes to the world of cotton candy. Some of the first changes to the cotton candy industry came in the 1920s after the 17 year patent protection for Morrison and Wharton’s “electric candy machine” finally expired. In 1921, another dentist by the name of Josef Lascaux broke into the cotton candy scene. After Lascaux saw the success of fellow dentist Morrison, Lascaux decided that he also wanted to make the treat for his dental clients. So Lascaux created a cotton candy machine similar in design to Morrison and Wharton’s contraption.
However, in order to avoid association with the original “fairy floss” created by Morrison and Wharton, Lascaux decided to market his version of the treat as “cotton candy.” He thought that the treat looked like the cotton grown in Louisiana, the state he resided in. Cotton candy is almost 70% air, so it makes sense that Lascaux coined the treat after cotton. Cotton is a naturally-grown fluffy fiber that spreads seeds by being blown through the air. Even though Lascaux gets the credit for coming up with the current name of cotton candy, he sadly never made it big in the candy business.THE HISTORY OF COTTON CANDY
Aha! The ‘cotton’ in cotton candy does originate from deep south cotton. So now we know that the term ‘cotton candy’ is a colloquialism and that it is the very nature of colloquialisms that they present challenges to understanding for those who are not familiar with the term. But do colloquialisms also carry more historical baggage? Can colloquialisms be insensitive, hurtful, anachronistic, or considered to be outside the Overton window of socially acceptable prose?
The relationship between cotton and the African American experience has been central to the history of the republic. Cotton was arguably the single most important determinant of American history in the nineteenth Century. It prolonged slavery and slave-produced cotton caused the American Civil War, our bloodiest conflict which came close to destroying the nation. When cotton production exploded to satiate the nineteenth century textile industry’s enormous appetite, it became the first truly complex global business and thereby a major driving force in U.S. territorial expansion and sectional economic integration. Both before and after the Civil War, blacks were assigned the cotton fields while a pervasive racial animosity and fear of a black migratory invasion caused white Northerners to contain blacks in the South.
A broad survey of the cotton’s role from 1787 to the 1930s encompasses finance, international trade, global business, race, migration and immigration, government subsidy and regulation, technology, industrialization, global shifts in manufacturing, mechanization, supply and demand dynamics, displacement, labor shortages, price mechanism, legal adaptation, environment, territorial expansion, war, international diplomacy, monopoly, economic growth, geography and economic and cultural determinism. King Cotton was truly an empire builder and gives us insights into issues which confront the world today.Cotton and Race in the Making of America,Gene Dattel, 2009
So here is the rub with the name ‘cotton candy’. It links a delightful candy treat to a nostalgic concept of spun cotton in the deep south. Yet the concept of spun cotton may not be a delightful thought to all people. Some people may only think about the beauty of spun cotton in the manufacturing process on its way to being used in a number of products, such as my favourite shirts. Yet others may think about the history of King Cotton and the relationship to the painful African American experience. My conclusion is that there is no necessary reason to use the meme of cotton to describe this type of candy. I would rather say ‘spun sugar confection’ or the original name ‘candy floss‘.
J Mark Morris : San Diego : California