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What happens when you cross potatoes and satellites?

GraceNL's picture

What happens when you cross potatoes and satellites?

            What is in a name? Names are simply the means by which one identifies a person, place, or thing. Names are just human constructs that hold no meaning outside of human society, yet they play such an important role in that same culture. For literary authors, names/identifying phrases often hold a lot of symbolism in their corresponding stories, signifying other things or ideas. Sometimes, literary authors use puns and wordplay to help construct names and give the names even deeper meanings. Puns and wordplay play a huge role in literature today. Puns and wordplay allow authors to call forth emotions or memories without explicitly mentioning them. According to a pun is, “the humorous use of a word or phrase so as to emphasize or suggest its different meanings or applications…”. By choosing specific, representational names, puns, and wordplay authors can guide readers down specific paths without obviously doing so.

Ruth Ozeki, in her novel, “All Over Creation”, uses names, puns, and word play to create a connection between things that would otherwise be wildly different and to create a sense of interconnectivity throughout the novel. For example, hybrid plants vs. multi-racial children. Liberty Falls. Tibet. Seeds of Resistance. Spudnik.

Spudnik. The name of the motor home the Seeds of Resistance travel the country in. The Spudnik “had the unmistakable shape of a Winnebago, boxy and inelegant, but the body of the vehicle was covered with pop-riveted patches of tin and aluminum, like scales, while its roof had been shingled with some sort of dark, rectangular paneling” (Ozeki 47). On the outside it looked like a mess but on the inside “it felt exactly the way Frankie imagined a home should feel” (Ozeki 51). It represented the people inside: different, unique, and passionate. On the surface, the Spudnik doesn’t seem obsolete but when analyzing the name its symbolic importance becomes obvious.

Spudnik can be split into two parts, ‘spud’ and ‘nik’, both of which are symbolic. ‘Spud’ has a semi-obvious symbolism in the novel. ‘Spud’ is a slang term for potato. One of the main themes in the novel “All Over Creation” is about potatoes. In the novel, the Seeds of Resistance are fighting against GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) potatoes and much of the book takes place on or around a potato farm(s). The ‘spud’ in Spudnik calls forth the idea of potatoes in a reader’s mind, increasing the connection between the Seeds of Resistance and potatoes.

The second half of Spudnik, ‘nik’ on the other hand has less obvious symbolism. ‘Nik’ is a suffix “appended to words to create a nickname for a person [or thing] who exemplifies, endorses, or is associated with the thing or quality specified...” (-nik). Some popular culture examples of the use of the suffix ‘nik’ are beatnik, computernik, draftnik, and spacenik. The suffix ‘nik’ originates from Russian and first became popular in English “for nicknames and diminutives after the 1957 Soviet launch of the first Sputnik satellite” (-nik).

By giving Spudnik it’s name, Ozeki, literally is giving it a nickname that associates it with potatoes. So when Geek says, “’This,’… ’is the spudnik!’” right when readers first meet the Seeds of Resistance Ozeki is foreshadowing the Seeds of Resistance’s fight against GMO potatoes (Ozeki 49). But there’s more to the name than just the suffix ‘nik’ added to a nickname for potatoes. When a reader reads the name Spudnik it resembles the name Sputnik, the name of the very satellite that popularized the use of ‘nik’ in the US.

The launch of the first Sputnik satellite, Sputnik 1, “…ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race” (Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age). “The Sputnik launch changed everything. As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world's attention and the American public off-guard” (Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age). It represented the future of space travel and the changing of the times. The Spudnik is the mobile unit of the Seeds of Resistance it represents the future of organic farming and activism and the changing of the times.

The interplay of Spudnik and Sputnik represent the interconnectivity of the world around us. Ozeki’s use of names, wordplay, and puns, particularly with Spudnik, symbolically and actually represents the interconnection between the environment and humans. Punning is a stylistic way of saying that we are all connected. It is amusing so it draws people in and makes them think. By uses Spudnik and other terms/names in the way she does, Ozeki makes people think about their connection with each other and the environment. Thinking environmentally is thinking interconnected; everything is connected to everything else.




Works Cited

Ozeki, Ruth. All Over Creation. N.p.: Penguin, 2004. Print.

"-nik." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2015. <>.

"Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age." NASA. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.   <>.


Anne Dalke's picture


as I said in our conference, I'm taking real delight in the playfulness with which you are now picking up these writing projects. I like the way you exemplify your topic in your style--"Liberty Falls. Tibet. Seeds of Resistance. Spudnik.


I appreciate the way in which you do the historical and etymological work to elaborate on all the meanings and implications of 'spudnik.' I ESPECIALLY appreciate your moving to a larger level of analysis, one that links the linguistic with the ecological, when you say that "punning is a stylistic way of saying that we are all connected."

There's a MUCH more labored version of this idea in an essay bluish shared with me a few weeks ago: Timo Maran's “Towards an integrated methodology of ecosemiotics: The concept of nature-text.Sign Systems Studies 35.1/2  (2007), which argues that ecology and semiotics emerged as two different types of 20th c. scientific, systemic thinking; both are disciplines of relation. And both attend closely to context, “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and asserted.” Words, like organisms, take their meanings from larger system in which they appear.

It's that larger semantic and historical system that you are foregrounding here. Very nice.

And then. The Spudnik blows up. What can you do with that awful turn of the plot....?