I have never run this idea by anybody else, largely because I do not really know how any given person would react to the whole concept, but since I was about middle-school age, I have always had a “set of words” that function like earworms. Words that fill in gaps in songs when I drop lyrics, words that I can babble about to myself around the house (as is tradition when you have a place to yourself), words that have semantic value and yet seem as important as tactile sensations of the face.
The first word I remember lodging itself into my brain like this was “yam.” I have Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from ninth grade English class to thank for that. As a freshman in high school, the biggest takeaways from that were that West Africa is beads, palm wine, and yam foo-foo, and how many women you can acquire to make beads, yam foo-foo, and palm wine, and how palm wine and yam foo-foo can make you a powerful figure in your tribe, if applied liberally across your kinship groups. Also something about colonialism and despair, but those themes are hard to read for through the constant repetition of how enormously significant yams are. Certainly the food and drink and agricultural woes of the villagers loomed larger in my memory than most other things as a freshman new to literary criticism and analysis. From that Igbo staple crop I would get the word “yam” working its way into my subconscious, conscious, and pseudo-conscious mind at every turn. Sometimes, though now I know that the two foods are unrelated, this would become “candied yams” when the random language generator in my brain decided it needed to use a longer nonsensical, context-less phrase.
After that period, which lasted solidly through high school, I got to college. My freshman year, my awesome crew of total nerds/geeks/dorks (and I really do mean that sincerely – some of my best friends for life came from that tribe we forged out of language classes and the odds and ends of student life events) introduced me to Invader Zim. If you have not seen the old, obscure Nickelodeon series (as I did not during its broadcast run) you might have to check it out. It fused an utter nihilism about the adult world with deadpan humor dark enough to blot out the sun. But it also had a twitchy sense of how repetition of words, particularly food words, catches on some snag in the brain. I am sure I am not the only one who had this experience watching Zim, but whether it’s GIR quotes like “TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE TUNA” or “HE’S BEEN HERE THE WHOOOOOOOOOLE TIME” I still to this day cannot resist quoting that show with anyone I meet who has seen it.
Where Zim intersects with high Nigerian literature in my brain is with the word “taco.” To this day, more than a decade removed from that freshman year marathon of a goofy cartoon, I find that word popping into the most random conversations, or in any of the syntactic situations mentioned at the beginning of this post. It did not help that one of my best friends during and for a long time after college pointed out a popular meme that “TACOCAT is a palindrome!” and further cemented that Mexican staple as my default filler word.
Stepping back from the comedy of the whole situation, I am curious if anyone else has words like “yam” or “taco” that they find themselves uttering when there are few other words to utter. Certainly monosyllabic food names are no “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or the wide-ranging “dude” of linguistics paper fame. Yet all the same, like certain songs become earworms, I find myself with a very small subset of all words constantly hovering at the back of my mind as the ideal filler. Maybe this is a shockingly bizarre idiosyncrasy of my own, but I would imagine at least some of you who might read this have something similar of your own, even if it is not an ethnic food name.