The incredible, spreadable mush. Mush is meal, especially cornmeal, boiled in water or milk until it forms a thick, soft mass, or until it is stiff enough to mold. More common in its usage, mush refers to anything that is of a thick, soft mass. Onomatopoetic in nature, this word hails from mid-late 17th century America, a time during which the new residents of America were rendering all sorts of things from the so-called New World into thick masses. Mush can also refer to a pack of (adorable) dogs pulling a sled through snow, with origins in Canadian French from the word marchons meaning let’s go!, but it’s unlikely our shirt designer had this meaning in mind.
A double negative of “not not” in English produces an affirmative statement, but in other languages, multiple negation intensifies the sentence, producing something called negative concord. Here we understand our sentence simply as: Money is like mush, it’s only good [when] it has been spread around, a delightful paraphrase of Francis Bacon’s1625 quote, “Money is like muck — not good unless spread.”
My rendering of this phrase is not perfect. For one thing, the quality of things that are mushy doesn’t always translate to that of spreadable things. English’s textural specificity here is acting against me. But there are many things with textures similar to that of mush which are most delicious when their surface area has been maximized via the technique known as spreading. Examples of spreadable deliciousness include Nutella, Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter, cashew butter, actual butter, Vegemite, and marmalade. The jury is out on whether Nutella or cookie butter is best enjoyed by spreading or by the spoon (or ladle) full, but I think most would agree with the general principle of “spreader is better” when thinking about Vegemite or actual butter (Alabama State Fair and your deep-fried butter on a stick, I’m looking at you).
Things that are meant for spreading are actually best when spread and not lumped together, and, as this shirt reiterates, the same can be said of money. Indeed, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening globally, with new millionaires popping up everyday. One disturbing statistic that exemplifies the intensity of this inequality is that the 85 richest people have the same collected wealth as the poorer half of this world. Three and a half billion people whose everything is equally valued (monetarily speaking) to as few people as there are ways to tie a tie.
The other matter that our shirt clearly alludes to in its text is the nature of the differences between Eastern and Western culture. Take any Anthropology 101 class and you will hear about how countries like Japan and South Korea are highly group-oriented, cooperative, intuitive, and communal.
I have personally borne witness to this collectivistic culture in many forms. In Sarawak, I am met with a face of shock when someone finds out I’ve driven some long distance alone, especially at night; if I’m eating or drinking by myself, I am joined, by whomever, without any concern as to whether I wanted to be without company. But perhaps most relevantly to the concept explored by the shirt that demonstrates the group-oriented nature of the culture in which I find myself is the Malay word tong-tong, literally meaning bins. It refers to the process of collecting money from parties in order to pay for something shared. An idea so nice they named it twice. This isn’t to say that a similar type of collection doesn’t occur back in the USA, it does. Individuals tally up what they owe and one person gets stuck with the nominally arduous task of mathing it all up.
There is something to be said, however, for the instantiation of concept into word. To press one particular part of the vast world of abstraction that characterizes our daily life into concise sounds has always been of interest to me. Language is curious in that it paradoxically becomes more entropic as it becomes more specific. You come to words like the German fernweh: feeling homesick for a place you have never been to, or mamihlapinatapai in Yaghan, a language once spoken in Tierra del Fuego, which roughly means, the look shared between two people who want to initiate something but are too afraid to start. Even the specificity of the root word ihlapi (pronounced [iɬapi]), meaning "to be at a loss as what to do next,” suggests to me that both hesitance and patience may have been important concepts in the culture practiced by the Yagán people, or at least important enough that the idea was given its very own sounds and meaning. The representation of the concept of tong-tong into the Malay word tong-tong tells me that sharing in this culture is highly relevant.
What this is all to say is that words themselves are indicative of linguistic saliency. This blog is devoted to exploring decisions made by tee shirt designers and giving those choices of letters and words meaning, because these shirts, in the nature of them existing are also salient of particular themes, ideas, and narratives. They are not created and distributed and worn in a vacuum.
Ultimately, this shirt reminds us of three things: spelling is far from perfect, language is beautiful, and that when thinking about money, whether it is like mush or like muck, spread it and share it.