Tuesday, 29 June 2004

...Rough-hew them how we will.

Nothing illustrates better the remark about Britain and America being two nations divided by a common language than our respective words for posterior, gluteus maximus, rear, backside, etc, etc.

Everyone knows that the Englishman's bum is the American's hobo, and the American's butt is the Englishman's barrel for collecting rainwater or storing Malmsey. Also, I am told that behind is so closely associated in America with butts that it is rarely used to denote the position of one thing relative to another and they have to say "Get thee in back of me, Satan". Englishmen have no such problem; we happily use the word in both senses and it is hard to imagine a context in which this could cause misunderstanding.

But when we come to ass/arse the position is more complicated. Americans have only the first word and pronounce it the same whether it is the animal or the other thing. We used to have the two words meaning different things which were pronounced and spelt differently. This meant that one could call someone a silly ass (short "a") which was a very mild and respectable way of telling him he was foolish. But inconsistency and confusion crept in long ago; in the fifties one of our serious newspapers noted on one page that the cricket authorities had been accused of assing about with the selection for the next Test match while on another page in the same issue Britain was said to have kicked the debtor nations up the arse.

My own feeling is that Englishmen of taste and refinement prefer the longer word, but, sadly, American influence has meant that it is now falling out of use.

I yield to no-one in my admiration for the way Americans have enriched the English tongue, and I used to spend a lot of time writing pastiches of Hemingway or Runyon, as in the first post on this blog (not that any American ever spoke like Runyon's characters, more's the pity). But in the particular matter we have been discussing here there is no doubt that they have impoverished our common language.

Here is the proof:

The last couplet of Chaucer's The Miller's Tale provides a perfect end to the story, combining as it does a terse summary of the final situation and a pious wish which we may all share.
In a modern translation by an Englishman it goes:
Now Nicholas is branded on the bum
And God take all of us to Kingdom come.


And see what a modern American translation has done with it:
And Nicholas is branded on the butt.
This tale is done, and God save all the rout!


Lamentable!

2 comments:

Chameleon said...

Just to widen the cultural frame of reference beyond the English speaking world...even Goethe became notorious for his rather unseemly reference to the posterior (see: http://www.uni-essen.de/literaturwissenschaft-aktiv/Vorlesungen/dramatik/berlichingen.htm) - a phrase that even today affords a most effective means of venting one's spleen. Indeed the oblique version of this insult, employed by tender souls who do not wish such coarseness to sully their mouths quotes the master dramatist (like Goethe in Götz).
And, moving beyond the Indo-European, my favourite put down in Hungarian translates (in a somewhat sterilised rendition fit for your literate audience) as "insert a stallion's reproductive organ in your back passage". According to the Alternative Hungarian Dictionary (hours of fun for the older members of the family) the origin of the pungent saying is as follows: This is one of the most popular Hungarian curses, considered rather strong. It has a very interesting history. In this form the phrase is meaningless, but had a meaning about 400 years ago. As well known, Hungary was under Turkish occupation for 150 years (from 1526 to 1686).Well, the most frequent Turkish torturing/execution method was impaling. The Turkish word for "stake" was "lopat", a word, alas, too well known for contemporary Hungarians, but not known nowadays. Thus some 400 years ago, a Hungarian, wishing something very bad to his neighbor, said; "lopat a seggedbe" (i.e. a stake in your ass). The unknown word "lopat" was replaced later by "lófasz" (horse's prick), a word of almost identical pronunciation.

Tony said...

Oh dear, Chameleon, my regular commenters will desert me in droves, wondering how they can possibly compete with contributions as erudite as that, particularly if they pick up your insulting suggestion that, believing that literacy equates with prudery, you are sterilising your quotations for their benefit.
For myself, I am grateful. One never knows when might need a 400-year old obscenity to put down some Hungarian upstart, and Stephen Potter himself would have admired a conversation-stopping gambit like: “Now, moving beyond the Indo-European…”
And as for dear old Johann Wolfgang, I have no need to follow up your reference because I was already aware of his scatological bent, which I noted in "Style Guide" at No.30.