Category Archives: no need for language

For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly

My cat lies to me. I find this interesting.

My cat – our cat, rather – generally eats tinned food, but occasionally we give him cat biscuits. Not very often, and certainly not often enough as far as he’s concerned. He knows where they’re kept; when hungry will often sit in front of the biscuit cupboard giving it meaningful looks, even if he’s got a bowl full of food.

That’s not the interesting thing, though. What’s interesting is that, on several occasions, he’s sat by the back door and mewed to be let out, only to turn back and head for the biscuit cupboard when I open the door for him. The thinking is fairly straightforward, if you think of it as thinking – it goes roughly like this:

This‘ll get his attention!

But there’s an awful lot going on under the surface, particularly when you think that we’re dealing with a cat. How do you get to that thought? Or, if ascribing thoughts to a cat is a step too far, how do you get to that action? It seems to me that any creature capable of doing the back-door feint would have to go through something like this series of steps:

  1. Move (instinctively, or at any rate unreflectively) towards the back door when wanting to go out
  2. Move (unreflectively) towards the biscuit cupboard when fancying a biscuit or two
  3. Observe that move 1 is usually successful
  4. Observe that move 2 is usually unsuccessful
  5. Analyse events involved in successful outcomes to strategies 1 and 2
  6. Identify common factor, viz. getting a human’s attention
  7. Reflect on goals of move 1 and move 2
  8. Identify common intermediate goal of getting human’s attention
  9. Redefine move 1 as move which achieves intermediate goal
  10. Plan to make move 2 more effective by preceding it with move 1, thus getting human’s attention before expressing interest in biscuit cupboard

I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as pretty sophisticated thinking, particularly if we assume (as I think we must) that none of these thought processes are conscious.

Cats: they’re brighter than they look. Or rather, they really are as bright as they look.

Pablo Picasso (II)

Silvio Berlusconi has said some strange things in the current election campaign. It’s a sign of the kind of politician he is, a charismatic authoritarian populist. To some extent it’s the equivalent of having Kilroy as the leader of a major political party, or Enoch Powell, or Cyril Smith: to his opponents he’s crude and offensive, but to his followers he’s saying the unsayable, he’s telling it like it is, he’s the man they can’t gag. (Thatcher tapped right into this before she was elected, and coasted on the memory for years afterwards.)

But there’s another level to it, which I don’t think works so well in the British as in the Italian context. Berlusconi’s battute (‘quips’, but literally ‘blows’) are wild, outrageous and often genuinely funny, if only because they’re so absurd: I laughed out loud when I heard that he’d compared himself to both Jesus Christ and Napoleon (“only I’m taller”). This kind of ludicrous exorbitance prompts immediate scepticism, but it also evokes a kind of amused tolerance – go on then, what are you going to come up with this time? In short, it puts you in the mood to judge Berlusconi – and other politicians – primarily on entertainment value: they all talk bollocks anyway, so let’s just see who tells the best story. And Berlusconi, the old crooner, gives good story. (Thanks to Pietro for this point.)

So it’s not entirely surprising that Berlusconi has said some strange things in the course of the current campaign: it’s what he does. What is surprising – well, you know what I was saying about politicians talking bollocks?

Berlusconi, 3rd April:

“Ho troppa stima dell’intelligenza degli italiani per pensare che ci siano in giro così tanti coglioni che possano votare contro i propri interessi”

“I have too much respect for the intelligence of the Italian people to think that there are enough coglioni around here who could vote against their own interests [and elect the Left].”

Where coglioni means… well, what does it mean? If you’re reading this in America the answer’s simple: a coglione is an asshole (shades of Roy Keane…). Which brings us back to the BritEng slang lexicon: ‘prat’ is close, but it doesn’t have the shock value of coglioni – or the implicit malice. ‘Shithead’ is probably closest in meaning, but its relative rarity makes it seem more extreme.

La Repubblica has devoted some attention to the problems of translation. It’s an interesting piece, although less illuminating than it might be – apart from anything else, the Italian-speaking writer doesn’t feel the need to explain to her Italian-speaking readers what coglione means. (There’s probably a name for this problem among translators. I hit it once when I was trying to describe a city district to an American colleague. Brownstones? I don’t know, we don’t use that word in England. Oh – what do you call them?)

The literal meaning of coglioni isn’t too difficult, of course. La Repubblica quotes Reuters:

“Berlusconi labelled centre-left voters as ‘coglioni’. The Italian word is slang for ‘testicles’ but is also commonly used as an insult to describe someone of little intelligence.”

Fair enough. The paper’s survey of the European media is also interesting:

The French commentators do better than the English-speakers, as they have an equivalent word – but any citizen of the République would shudder to think that, even in the heated climate of these last few days, Sarkozy could call his opponents cons … The word is all right in a song by Georges Brassens, but not the political arena; in fact France Presse opted for couillons, no less vulgar but less idiomatic as slang. The agency may have chosen this term because, like the word used by Berlusconi, it refers to male organs; the French term honoured by Brassens, which effectively means ‘idiot’, refers to the female organ.Juan de Lara, director of the Spanish press agency Efe, is still in shock: “We can laugh about how to translate the word used by Berlusconi, but in reality this is a very serious matter.” For Spanish readers, Berlusconi’s epithet will be translated as gilipollas. [No idea - PJE] “But it’s a very vulgar word,” Lara notes; “I can’t even imagine a Spanish politican using it!”. And in this case, too, translation is awkward but delicate: for Efe, our Prime Minister called a good part of the electorate “tonto del culo” ['crazy-arse'].

Carola Frentzen, correspondent for Deutsche Presse Agentur, is stunned by Berlusconi’s language but remains diplomatic. She says, “We have many ugly words corresponding to the one used by the Prime Minister, but I won’t use them in the article. I’ll use the more banal ‘idiots’. The meaning is as clear as in the Italian, and for the German press it’s not really worth the trouble of getting upset about the language used by the Prime Minister. The German people have already used their own words about him on the occasion when they didn’t appreciate his joke about the word ‘Kapo’.” This was the term with which Berlusconi addressed Martin Schultz, head of the German EU delegation, during his inaugural speech [when Italy held the EU Presidency] at Strasbourg.

Update: according to Reuters, Translations of “coglioni” in British and American dictionaries range from “idiot”, “cretin”, “fool” and “moron” to “prick” and “asshole”. However, the English-language service of the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia demurs: English and American vocabularies are wrong. The best translation is, in fact, “sucker”, “dickhead” or just “dick”. The latter is most popular one, with the commonly used phrase “Don’t be a dick”. So now you know.

One final thought from la Repubblica:

At the end of this linguistic journey, we still have room for doubt in the Italian language. Given that the term used by Berlusconi doesn’t have a feminine form, can female centre-left voters regard themselves as excluded from his judgment?

It’s a silly question, but the language is nearly offensive enough to make it significant. However you render it in English (or French, or Spanish), what Berlusconi said was an insult not just to his centre-Left opponents or their committed supporters, but to anyone who might be thinking of voting centre-Left. This wasn’t just another battuta, in other words; grave offence has been taken, and the Italian public has been treated to the unusual sight of Berlusconi squirming. First, he insisted that he was joking (“I said it with a smile on my face”, an assertion apparently contradicted by TV footage). Then he took refuge in the frankly casuistical argument that he’s being attacked for what he didn’t say: “I didn’t state that some of the Italian people would vote against their own interests and so deserve that epithet – I denied it.” Subsequently he’s insisted that ‘coglioni‘ didn’t refer to all potential Left voters, only the ones whose material interests would be damaged by a Left government. The latest – but probably not the final – fallback position is to argue that it’s all a fuss about nothing, and that using the word in question is in fact comune e bonaria (normal and polite). Nice try. Thankyou and goodnight.

Four. More. Days.

Pablo Picasso (I)

Join me now, if you will, for a brief but thorough exploration of the British English lexicon of insult. (You’ll see why we’re doing this in part II.)

Let’s say that you want to insult a friend; you want to use bad language, but you also want to use the mot juste. The reason why you want to insult him is given by the following scenario. You’re in another town on business. On your way back to the station you pass a comic shop; being something of a devotee of the medium, you go in and browse for a while. While there your attention is drawn to something rare and valuable – an Amazing Fantasy 15, a set of all ten Luther Arkwrights, whatever. You’re tempted, but – you tell yourself – you can’t quite justify the expense. But still… It preys on your mind, and after a week or so you think, never mind the expense, I’m buying it, and begin to make plans for a return trip to the town. At this point your friend (remember him?) mentions that he’s going to the town the following weekend. If you give him the money, will he make the purchase and bring it back to you? Of course he will! Nothing would be easier!

Now it’s a week later. Your friend’s let you down. You’re not very pleased with him.

If he got drunk the night before, overslept and never made the trip at all, he’s an arsehole.
If he went but completely forgot what he’d agreed to do and didn’t remember until you reminded him, he’s a prat (dickhead, pillock and wazzock are in the same area).
If he not only forgot what he’d agreed to do but refuses to believe you when you remind him, maintaining that you’d lent him the money for some other reason completely, he’s a wanker (or possibly a dick).
If he forgot what he’d agreed to do, then forgets to bring you back the money, then asks you for a loan, he’s a twat.
If he’s spent some of the money and denies it until you make him count it out, he’s a prick.
If he’s spent some of the money and attempts to justify doing so when you call him on it, he’s a git.
If he’s spent all the money and comes out with a series of plausible reasons why he can’t possibly pay you back straight away, he’s a bastard.
If he’s spent all the money and refuses to talk to you about it or even meet, he’s a shit.
If he’s spent all the money, openly admits it, refuses to admit that he’s done anything wrong and tells you you shouldn’t be so uptight about it, he’s a cunt.

I think that about covers it. (That last term, incidentally, has never been exemplified better than in the second episode of Queer as Folk. Vince: “He’s a cunt, Nathan.” Says it all.)

One peculiarity of the BritEng slang lexicon, as I understand it, is that there’s no real equivalent to the AmEng ‘asshole’. ‘Prat’ and its cognates are close: like ‘prat’, ‘asshole’ is a light enough word to convey banal, everyday contempt and irritation. But there’s a certain fondness about the contempt expressed by ‘prat’; ‘asshole’ has more of a critical edge. An asshole, in other words, is a useless idiot, but he’s not just someone who can’t help being a useless idiot – there’s a suggestion of dogged persistence, even malevolence. I think it’s a concept that doesn’t really exist in Britslang, at least not until you get to the more definitively offensive levels of ‘twat’ and beyond.

It seems that Italian is more like AmEng, although the word in question doesn’t translate as ‘asshole’. But to find out what it is, you’ll have to read part II.

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