This word was first brought to my attention today. I was assured that if I didn’t know what it meant yet, I would by the time the World Cup was over. That was a bit of a hint. I assumed it wasn’t the name of a star player, and I knew it wasn’t the name of a country (Venezuela does come close). Once I knew it had to do with noise, it seemed possible it might be a sort of ululation with the uvula. But in fact the only body part directly involved is not one the name of which resembles vuvuzela.
I could fantasize that it’s the name of some South African version of Godzilla, and in one way there’s some validity: it has considerable destructive force with its sound (indeed, it is blown to “kill off” the opponents). But that’s the sound in the ensemble, which is that of hundreds or thousands of them being blown full blast in the last quarter of a game. And what is that sound? Well, it’s the sound of a metre-long cheap plastic horn. It’s not like the tooters used in North America for sports and parties, which tend to have reeds embedded; the vuvuzela is simply a horn like other horns in that it channels a Bronx cheer into an ear-splitting blast. Very rapidly, the lips vibrate together-apart-together-apart vuvu, and the noise is like a very loud vuvu indeed.
And will it surprise you that this vuvu is a Zulu vuvu? Vuvuzela means “making a vuvu noise” or, more exactly, “vuvu-ing”. It happens that it also is thought to be related to township slang for “shower”, perhaps because it looks a bit like a shower head, but it may be that the shower head is called what it is because it looks like a vuvuzela. It is apparently coincidence that the Zulu root for the verb “swell” is -vuvuka. Just as well: that’s not the “swell” of “swell toy!” or even of “the music swells”; it’s the “swell” your eye does when someone has hit it.
More likely your ear. But whatever. South Africans from Tutu to Mandela are familiar with the vuvuzela. Some go out of their way to avoid it. It has been suggested that it is rooted in the toot of a kudu horn. But it is not some ancient tribal instrument; it was invented somewhere in the last 40 years, originally made of metal, and really only started to be popular in the 1990s; the now-ubiquitous plastic versions, cheap and not readily weaponizable, made in colours to correspond to one’s preferred team, started being mass-produced in 2001. And now it’s already a dominating presence at South African football matches.
So, kudu or no kudu, the vuvu is a lulu when it comes to its toot-toot-tooting, capable of producing hearing damage. Commentators tend to hate it, as it drowns them out; even the players find it can make communication difficult. But there it is: a brand-new deeply rooted tradition of exuberant communication that makes communication nearly impossible. Welcome to South Africa! Voulez-vous? Ngicela!*
*Ngicela: “please” in Zulu. The ngi is like the middle of “sing geek” and the c is a click made with the tip of the tongue as in “tsk”. As is usual in Zulu, the vowel in the second-last syllable is longer.