John Sturgis

The viral appeal of the aubergine

The viral appeal of the aubergine
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It seems at first an unlikely ingredient for global domination - particularly if, like me, you first encountered it as an unappetising squidge at the centre of a badly-made seventies moussaka.

While the actual aubergine - the palpable purple signature ingredient from said retro Greek bake - remains a relatively minor player in the western larder at least, its visual representation, the aubergine in emoji form, has broken out of the virtual veg box.

The text symbol for aubergine since it was first created, in Japan, in only 2010, has been visually depicted more times than any other fruit in the history of the world to date, maybe even more than all the others combined (For pedants, like the tomato, the aubergine is technically a fruit rather than the vegetable it’s culinarily generally treated as).

The numbers are staggering, so high they are impossible to count with any accuracy: some five billion emojis are used on Facebook alone every day, with that count ever rising, and the aubergine is at the upper end of the most popular.

With a global annual harvest around 50 million tonnes (it’s big in China and India) - and allowing for, say, an average weight of 500g per individual aubergine, you’re looking at maybe 300 million aubergines eaten worldwide a day. There is rather less credible research material in the emoji rather than farmers’ field so I’m relying on my own back-of-a-fag-packet maths here but across the whole web, every WhatsApp, text message, Instagram comment and tweet, the aubergine is being sent hundreds of millions of times every day: I think it’s pretty certain the world now produces more emoji aubergines than actual ones.

It has undoubtedly been the subject of thousands of times more iterations in its short lifespan than the biblical apple of Genesis managed in the previous two millennia.

Adam and Eve’s apple, the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe - as Milton had it - was a mere centuries-old warm-up act for the aubergine. It was also pretty tame fare as corrupting influences go, with hindsight. Goodness knows what Milton and his peers would have made of our purple friend. Because, in case emojis aren’t your thing, to spell it out: this is all about sex.

Put away your suggestively-shaped tomatoes, they’re passé; move over bananas, you tired old fruit: the aubergine is here, the undisputed lingua franca fruit-based representation of the priapic male member.

Nina Simone’s gloriously transgressive Forbidden Fruit (‘Awe, go ahead and bite it I bet you'd be delighted…’) would work even better on aubergines than apples.

The aubergine’s eminence is so established lately that it can no longer be described as a phallic symbol: it is the phallic symbol, the world’s phallic symbol. And now it has become so prevalent that it no longer just evokes simply a phallus; it has become a broader term for sex generally.

Not everyone has latched on yet: emoji questions top the charts in ‘what does X mean?’ search categories on Google and in at number three in the sub chart is: our diagonally-pointed purple fruit.

The only fruit that can hold a candle to the aubergine these days is the peach, used, in similarly puerile fashion, to represent bottoms.

There have been attempts to stop this proliferation of suggested filth - Instagram briefly had a crackdown on its usage; Facebook takes a dim view if it’s used in conjunction with sexualised messaging or comment. But they have largely been in vain: nothing can halt the purple juggernaut.

It remains predominantly a low culture thing. But it’s unlikely to stay that way. Emoji use generally is on the rise and has permeated hitherto unlikely quarters: the Debrett’s Almanac, for example, features a short ‘dictionary of popular emoticons’ but confines those defined to the tamer end of the spectrum: winking face and friends.

Perhaps the moment it became culturally ubiquitous came just last month when Marks and Spencer announced that it would be launching an ‘Easter Eggplant’, geddit? The accompanying publicity was geared around its vegan chocolate but they surely knew from the design what would get picked up and what duly did: look, a chocolate M&S! When the double entendre spreads to Marks and Spencer's, you know the symbol has gone beyond the point of passing fad and is here to stay.

Written byJohn Sturgis

John Sturgis is a veteran Fleet Street news journalist

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