When an attack made potatoes go viral

I was following the news about the deadly attack in Manhattan last week when I kept hearing a TV reporter unintentionally invoke potatoes while covering the news.   

The reporter was attempting to say the Arabic phrase witnesses say they heard before the attack, “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is great.” 

Instead, the reporter said, “aloo akbar.” In Urdu and Hindi, aloo means potatoes. He wasn’t the only media person saying it this way.

I tweeted about the mispronunciation, which struck my ear as odd and distracting. It circulated among nearly 12 million Twitter users, with 150,000 likes and more than 50,000 retweets. 

It even made into the lighting round of NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t tell me podcast and numerous media reports worldwide. So why did this tweet about a mispronounced phrase touch such a nerve? 

For me, journalists have to get the details right in a major, breaking news story. It speaks to our credibility to be able to say common names and phrases correctly. For the millions of people, like myself, who were horrified by the news, the mistake provided a moment of comic relief. 

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the gravity of the news with a seemingly trivial mistake that changed the entire meaning of what was being said.  

More than that, the tweet ignited “potato twitter.” Enthusiastic love for the spud spans cultures and borders. From the Irish to the Indian to Idahoan, we relate to the potato. 

In a time when it feels like the world is torn apart by differences, thousands on Twitter rallied behind the greatness of this comforting carb. Apparently, the praiseworthiness of potatoes is a message we can get behind. The replies to my original tweet were far more entertaining. People shared their best recipes, argued about the merits of mashed versus roasted, and the tweet continues to travel. 

Mehreen Kasana wrote a thoughtful piece about why pronunciation matters: 

A lot of people actually don’t know how to pronounce “Allahu akbar.” So, here’s a short little primer on pronunciation, along with other important details. “Allahu akbar” is based in the Arabic language and contains two words making up the phrase that means “Allah is great.” It’s pronounced like this: Alaw-hu-ak-bur.

A slight variation in a person’s inflection or over-emphasis on a particular syllable can change the actual meaning of a word. Sultan’s tweet of the reporter apparently saying “aloo akbar” becomes entirely different because of the pronunciation. In fact, the language ends up changing. “Aloo” is Urdu for potatoes and so, when someone says “aloo akbar,” it literally becomes “potatoes [are] great.”

The alerts on my phone continued to alternate between the depraved and the lighthearted.  

Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old man from Uzbekistan, is charged with killing eight people by driving a rented pickup truck drove down a busy bicycle path near the World Trade Center, motivated by ISIS propaganda. 

Meanwhile, I got more than 3,000 notifications about all the ways in which potatoes are glorious. 

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