THAT’S NO NIGHTINGALE!

The Economist‘s “Correspondent’s diary” last week featured a series of columns on language: “My obsession, on which I’ll be expounding this week, is how languages are constructed and the differences in how they express things.” For the most part, it’s what you’d expect of a foreign correspondent nattering on about foreign languages (“not one of the languages I have studied has a word for ‘accountability'”), and you’d be well advised to take everything he says with a grain of salt, but it’s enjoyable reading, and I learned a Russian saying that appeals to me: На бесптичье и жопа – соловей [Na besptich’e i zhopa – solovéi], which the reporter translates as “When there are no birds, even an arse is a nightingale.” (In Russian, the first phrase actually reads ‘in (a condition of) birdlessness…’) I find it very odd that he writes “When a Cuban says ‘take the bus’, coge la guagua, most of the rest of Latin America hears something quite unprintable” (coger means ‘fuck’ in the Argentine Spanish I learned; as far as I know guagua is just a Cuban word for ‘bus’), but then insouciantly uses the word cunt in his Friday column. I guess U.K. sensibilities are very different than U.S. ones. And judging by the comments, he offended a lot of Russians by using the Russian equivalent of cunt (pizdá); either he didn’t realize how “bad” a word it is, or he didn’t expect actual foreigners to be reading The Economist.
Thanks for the link, Kári!

Comments

  1. guagua means ‘infant’ in at least some parts of Bolivia — but I’m pretty sure that coger doesn’t mean ‘fuck’ in those same parts…

  2. Australian sensibilities about “cunt” are very different than American ones, as my Australian sister-in-law found out when she got mad at herself for leaving her purse behind and said “cunt!” loudly in a crowded restaurant. She knew she’d offend people if she said “fuck!” you see. Not a winning move.

  3. What’s interesting is that in Hebrew there is a saying which is a word for word translation of this жопа-соловей saying – only that in Hebrew it actually rhymes! It goes likes this: “beein zipor shir – gam tahat zamir”.
    Oh and I just loved the skiing out of a cunt expression. Too bad there aren’t too many occasions to use it.

  4. Well excuuuuuse me!
    Oh and I just loved the skiing out of a cunt expression. Too bad there aren’t too many occasions to use it.
    Some time ago, I introduced the Finnish version “suksi vittuun” (ski into a cunt) to my friends. You wouldn’t believe how many occasions to use it they managed to find. What’s interesting is that after some time, some of them stopped using the phrase and instead use the slightly cryptic “go get some skis”.

  5. rootlesscosmo says:

    Is there a specifically Russian affinity for aphorisms of the form “If [counterfactual condition] then [paradoxical result]”? I got big yucks from Russians to whom I told the saying “If shit were worth money, the poor would be born without assholes.”

  6. I thought “coger” was rude almost everywhere in Latin America. At least it is in Mexico, in addition to Argentina/Uruguay. I don’t know about Bolivia/Peru/Ecuador.
    Which of course leads to the old joke:
    American tourist: “Donde puedo coger un taxi?”
    Mexican local: “en el escape!” (in the exhaust pipe!)

  7. Speaking of cunts

  8. marie-lucie says:

    I learned a children’s song from a Chilean lady, the type of song which is meant to be sung with appropriate gestures: Coge tu sombrero y pontelo, Vamos a la playa, calienta el sol …. No joke here, but the old meaning of coger as ‘to take’. I understand that in Spain also, a person needing transportation can coger un taxi without misunderstanding.

  9. Certain words (or certain body parts) do provoke very different reactions in different countries (or in different language speakers) – read the reactions to Cognate’s use of the word ‘cunt’ in the comments below LH’s link to the Economist article – very entertaining, learned, and interesting.
    In 1957, I was sent to see the Brussels Expo, and was lodged with the lady who lent a bicycle to my father when he was shot down over Belgium in May, 1940. She did time in Ravensbruck for doing her bit in the Belgian Resistance, and when I met her, she was a marvellously regal and white-haired old lady, and I couldn’t help but respect her enormously.
    She did her best to entertain the little brat whom she’d taken in, and tried to tell me ‘English jokes’.
    I remember only one now:
    It was dawn in the forest…
    Not a leaf stirred…
    Not a bird stirred…
    Not a man’s turd.
    That pun from a lady who spoke French, English and Flemish, as a matter of course, converted me from being a ‘Little Englander’ to a ‘European’, and from a Brit brat to the rootless old man I am now.
    regards
    Richard

  10. Noetica says:

    I have some interesting photos of signs in public places from my peregrinations in China, but I did not shoot this one, dispatched to me in recent times:
    CUNT INSPECTION
    (In a hospital.)
    Cunt is still generally unprintable in Australian newspapers. There was an article last year in The Age, Melbourne, about this fact: and the article avoided the word itself.
    Slut is intriguing. It seems far stronger to Australian ears and sensibilities than to American. I have observed it used by Americans with an insouciance that only the most enraged or unenlightened Australians could muster.
    I am reliably informed that the more delicate Serbs say /piza/ for pizza, as opposed to /pitsa/. Sounds too much like pička (cf. the Russian) otherwise. I suppose there are some Australians who lengthen the a in pasta so it won’t sound like pus; and aren’t some Americans similarly cautious about asthma, which here in Australia we blithely pronounce /æsma/?

  11. whatzit says:

    guagua is indeed a Cuban word for bus. The second most frequently encountered word for bus there is camello which specifically describes these sorta humped buses which came in from, iirc, Hungary, back in the day. Cuban buses do, indeed, go guaguaguagua… as they toddle along the road, but I’m not going to say that’s where it came from.

  12. “aren’t some Americans similarly cautious about asthma, which here in Australia we blithely pronounce /æsma/?”
    None that I’m aware of. We say /æzma/, it’s honestly never struck me as similar.

  13. Guagua in the sense of baby is the normal word for baby in Chile as well as Bolivia, and also Peru, I believe. If you say bebé in Chile they are likely to think you’re Argentinian. Although not used in most of Spain, the word in the sense of bus is normally understood there, as it’s the usual word for bus in the Canaries. Once my wife (who is Chilean) got a very odd look when she asked for the Departamento de guaguas in a department store in Madrid.
    On the subject of cunts, the word coño was once associated in the Chilean mind so much with Spanish people (who were believed to use it in every sentence) that it came to be just the ordinary slang term for a Spanish person, and lost any sense of being obscene. According to my wife that usage is now old-fashioned, but is still understood. She could imagine an elderly lady saying it, but not a young person.

  14. This is a very educational thread!
    the word coño … lost any sense of being obscene
    This is true in Argentina as well; there the corresponding obscenity is concha. Since in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, aside from being a word for ‘shell,’ it’s the usual nickname for girls named Concepción, much hilarity ensues.

  15. The word pico is considered very obscene in Chile (where it corresponds to cock) but elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world it is an everyday word meaning peak. The highest peak in the north of Tenerife (not to be confused with El Teide, which is not only the highest peak in the south of Tenerife but is also the highest in all Spain) is called El Pico del Inglés and, as I am English I tried without success to find a picture postcard with the name clearly marked to send to my friends in Chile.

  16. dearieme says:

    “U.K. sensibilities are very different than U.S. ones”: no, no, no; U.K. sensibilities are very different from U.S. ones.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Is “coño” related to “coney” or other words for rabbits and small rodents?

  18. John Emerson says:

    Is “coño” related to “coney” or other words for rabbits and small rodents?

  19. michael farris says:

    IME the word cunt is nearly as bad in British English as it is in American.
    As for coño, it’s also used extensively by Cubans. It might well be derived from the word for rabbit, conejo (rabbit) is also used with the same meaning in some dialects.
    While we’re here, the esperanto equivalent is from Slavic ‘piĉo’. The root piĉ- is also the last name of one of the most esteemed authors in the language (Karel Píč, esperantized as Karolo Piĉ without the customary final -o).
    Strangely the Czech word would be píča which would make me think that Píč sounds like the genetive plural making his name sound like Charles of the Cunts in Czech?

  20. mollymooly says:

    Do terms like beaver, chatte, conejo, etc have any connection with vagina dentata?
    And is it true that French baiser “kiss” still current as a noun but not as a verb?

  21. michael,
    actually, Píč is a common Czech surname derived from Pietsch which is a common German surname derived from Low German personal name Piet, i.e. Peter. I like your theory, though, anything in Píč’s works to support it? 🙂

  22. marie-lucie says:

    And is it true that French baiser “kiss” still current as a noun but not as a verb?
    As a noun, the word does mean “kiss” but is rather formal. There are several more colloquial terms, eg une bise, un bisou and in Canada un bec. As a verb, it means “to kiss” only in a very formal context, with a direct object which does NOT refer to a person, usually in the phrase baiser la main (de quelqu’un) ‘to kiss (someone’s) hand’ and the compound le baise-main ‘hand-kissing’. The verb is also appropriate if you are kissing a bishop’s ring rather than the hand which wears the ring. Without an object, or with an object referring to a person, the verb refers only to sex but is not suitable for polite use.

  23. michael farris says:

    “IME the word cunt is nearly as bad in British English as it is in American.”
    Of course that should be:
    “IME the word cunt is not nearly as bad in British English as it is in American.”
    I’ve decided to fire my proof-reader (and I may even release him from his cage and back into the wild).

  24. Is the word “p*ssy” considered more obscene in the US than all the ones that have appeared without problem already in this thread? I wouldn’t have thought that was the case in the UK, but maybe I’m out of touch.
    I asked because your server refused to accept a post I prepared this morning on the grounds of “Doubtful content”, citing the word “p*ssy”. I tried to fool it by coding the u as u but that didn’t work. Eventually I thought it had accepted a post with the u replaced by *, but it hasn’t appeared in the list, so apparently it thought even that was too obscene for your readers.

  25. jamessal says:

    Yeah, I just got the same thing. And for the record I find this censorship deplorable!

  26. michael farris says:

    I’d say that in US English nyccu (pretend that’s cyrillic) has a wider range of usage than cunt. nyccu can be playful/affectionate in a way I don’t think cunt can. It can also sound coarser and …. filthier(?)
    ommv

  27. jamessal says:

    Yes, it can certainly be more playful, and I think you’re right about coarser/filthier too, in that it can be more uncomfortably evocative of sex. Though, for some reason, in my experience most people (and especially women) find “cunt” more offensive. I don’t know why.

  28. Sigh. See, a while back I was getting a spam attack that involved a bunch of different URLs; the only thing they had in common was “pussy.” So I said “Fuck it, I’ll just put pussy on the blacklist.” I knew it was going to come back to bite me in the ass if I didn’t remember to take it off the list once the spammer had moved on.
    I’ve removed it now, so you all can spew filth to your hearts’ content. But you should all have your mouths washed out with soap.

  29. So, let’s see what it was I wanted to say about pussies this morning.
    First of all, the word in its original meaning of cat is still commonly used in the UK, and if a young woman in the UK invited you while in the presence of her cat to stroke her pussy you wouldn’t be particularly shocked (especially if there were other women and children around).
    The second point was that fanny is more offensive in the UK than in the US, though mainly because it has a different meaning, not because we’re more easily offended.
    The third point was to wonder if anyone here is erudite enough to know if pussy acquired its sexual meaning as a calque on the French chatte, which has undergone the same transformation. When Montaigne wrote Quand je me jouë à ma chatte, qui sçait, si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle ? I doubt if he was seeking to shock anyone, but a similar sentence would raise an eyebrow or two today. I first saw this written up on the wall of the office of a former colleague in England, who only knew French from school, and didn’t know that chatte meant something different in modern French (though he didn’t have any difficulty in guessing what).
    Actually there seem to be endless things to say about cunts. I have just remembered that a South African friend told me that the cognate word in Afrikaans just means insides, and is not particularly offensive; it can be used by a man to refer to his own cunt.

  30. Hardly definitive, but I did look up “puss, pussy” in the OED and found that 1.) it sometimes also meant bunnies (thus my question about coño above) 2.) the obscene meaning and the zoological meaning are attested more or less equally early 3.) the English word may have an additional derivation from words meaning “purse / pocket”.
    And also some things about pussies and shellfish (cf. “concha” above).

  31. Hardly definitive, but I did look up “puss, pussy” in the OED and found that 1.) it sometimes also meant bunnies (thus my question about coño above) 2.) the obscene meaning and the zoological meaning are attested more or less equally early 3.) the English word may have an additional derivation from words meaning “purse / pocket”.
    And also some things about pussies and shellfish (cf. “concha” above).

  32. Grub Street says:

    Most British newspapers are willing to print any word, even mass market tabloids like The Times. The decision to print cunt with asterisks was made by Guardian at least a decade ago.
    The Economist is a right wing/libertarian journal, which objects to moral prejudice and interference with freedom of expression with the same rabid intensity as it does interference in the market economy. If a story calls for a supposedly rude word, then the magazine prints it. But I don’t think they’d gratuitously print rude words just too shock readers.

  33. if a young woman in the UK invited you while in the presence of her cat to stroke her pussy you wouldn’t be particularly shocked
    But it would still be recognized as a double-entendre, at least if the sitcom “Are You Being Served?” was not somehow Americanized.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    chatte in modern French: this word still means ‘female cat’, as in Vous avez un chat? – Oui, c’est une chatte (“You have a cat? – Yes, it’s a female” – since un chat has both the generic and the masculine meanings). The other meaning of chatte depends in the context and of course double entendre is possible.
    Re the English equivalent, the word pussycat is unequivocally an affectionate reference to a cat (or to a man who acts in a similar manner). I think that pussycat is a compound similar to tomcat, billygoat or jackrabbit, where the first element is a name. Puss(y) is (or was) the generic name for addressing a cat (“Come here, Puss!”), but a cat is (or was) not a pussy.

  35. What is “Puss-in-Boots” called in the US?

  36. Same thing. But I suspect it’s not much read any more.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    In French “Puss-in-Boots” does not have a name but is known as Le Chat Botté ‘the boot-wearing cat’. What about other languages?

  38. Check the list of languages at the bottom left of the Wikipedia article. In Russian it’s Кот в сапогах [Kot v sapogákh] ‘Tomcat in boots’; Russian Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have gotten around to him yet.

  39. Very important question: Who wrote the Economist piece? I can’t find the author’s name anywhere. I suspect it’s Gideon Lichfield. Can anyone find the author?

  40. I was curious about that too.

  41. mollymooly says:

    Economist pieces are normally unsigned. However, its staff directory lists only one person with Hebrew, namely the aforementioned Mr Lichfield. He claims knowledge of English, French, Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish, though not Arabic yet.

  42. Excellent detective work!

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