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  • French Kisses, Guinea Pigs and the Spanish vice November 13, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing had a terrifying dream last night. A great voice told him to find a bizarre story on turkeys, presumably one of the last shadows of his recent obsession with birds?

    Beachcombing has decided, however, not to do so because his subconscious has, frankly, been getting on his nerves in the last weeks. Instead, Beachombing is going to look at the perversities of nationality words in European languages and his id be damned.

    Now long-time readers will know that Beachcombing has a resigned contempt for mankind’s extraordinary ability to deform reality with its prejudices and desires. Indeed, Beachcombing even has a tag – cobblers – to deal with this rather depressing facet of human nature. And with ‘cobblers’ in mind, Beachcombing has recently been thinking about the way that nations ascribe to their neighbours things that actually have nothing to do with those neighbours.

    Now don’t get Beachcombing wrong. He is as happy as the next Englishman to utter something demeaning about, say, the French: and if he’s honest he rather likes it when the French utter something demeaning back. But he is describing here not stereotypes but the language eggs laid by these clucking stereotypes.

    Beachcombing will start with ‘the adult kiss’, known in English as ‘the French kiss’. A moment’s consideration should tell us that the ‘French’ kiss is actually universal and that all adults in a sexual relationship partake in this kiss. So to ascribe it to one nation – and the fact that it was ascribed to the French was not a compliment in puritanical times – is an absurdity. Yet the practice of ‘blaming’ the French is almost as universal as the kiss itself:  in Czech Francouzský polibek; in Turkish  Fransız öpücüğü; whereas in Nigeria they talk of Frenching…

    The exception is, naturally, France where French kissing is referred to as English kissing, Italian kissing or even Florentine kissing…

    Sexual practices and sexual ‘outcomes’ are a particularly rich field for such, let’s call them, perversities. Beachcombing is not going to get into the nationality names for some of the more trauma-inducing acts – sufficient to say his cheeks are burning as he writes and that the island of Cuba comes to mind.

    However, he will note that syphillis was known as the French disease in Italy and the Italian disease in France – what language did poor Nietzsche speak in to the horse he embraced? While homosexuality was variously called the ‘English/Spanish/French/Greek/Italian vice’.

    But if some countries serve as corrupt aunt sallys to be knocked down by preachers and moralists in neighbouring states, other countries serve other ends. Take the early names for American foods in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe.

    In Spanish ‘corn’ (maize to any Brits or Dominion-sorts reading) became Indian corn – an understandable enough mistake given the initial European confusion between the Americas and India.

    More curious though is English ‘Guinea’ that took on the sense of ‘an extravagant, exotic locale’: e.g. Guinea Pig – yes, they were eaten…, Guinea fowl, Guinea corn (maize again) though, of course, all these come from the Americas not from Guinea.

    Likewise several Latin countries referred to foods from the Americas as ‘Turkish’: Turkish corn, turkeys (the bird) etc – possibly because the Turks had some role in distributing these goods – the Ottoman Empire was certainly instrumental in the Balkans – but more likely because the ‘Turks’ were the foreigners par excellence. Interestingly, the Turks employed ‘Egyptian’ in a similar fashion, ascribing  unfamiliar foreign goods to that country.

    Then finally there are some interesting Jewish associations with foods from the Americas including judía for beans in Spanish and the Jerusalem artichoke. Were the Jews also ‘symbolic’ foreigners or did they, as possibly the Turks, take part in the early phase of distribution?

    Beachcombing has given some examples here of neighbours acting as useful symbols for moral corruption and more distant countries for exotica. Are there other stereotypes that have left their mark on the European languages: e.g. heroic nations – in the immediate post-war Italians used to say ‘fatto in America’ (made in America) as a sign of quality; or clowning nations ‘hacer el indio’ in Spanish if Beachcombing remembers rightly; or what about ‘going Dutch’ in English, never mind ‘double Dutch’? Beachcombing would love to know… He might even go and write an article on this and so get round his recent cash-flow problems. DrbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom

    PS Reading back through these words it is with some horror that Beachcombing notes that the turkey found its way in. This was entirely unintentional. What tricks our minds play on us… No wonder humans warp everything they touch.

    PPS Two hours after having finished this post Beachcombing worked out where the dream turkey came from. It was from the post of a fellow blogger, a Man called Da Da, the kind of monster who chases you into your dreams burnishing a machete made of banana skins. Pretty horrific when blogs cause you to have dreams about what you should write in your blog: is there any way out?

    31 Jan 2010: Martyn B wrote in with the following helpful comments on nationality words: ‘Jerusalem artichokes have nothing to do with any Jewish connotation.  They’re members of the sunflower family and move to follow the sun: hence ‘girasole’, which an English ear could well hear as ‘Jerusalem’.  ‘Dutch’ might refer to the negative views of that nation when De Ruyter was sweeping up the Medway.  The Dutch are mean, (‘going Dutch’), drunken and cowardly, (‘Dutch courage’), speak a  ridiculous and comical language (‘double Dutch’) and if this isn’t true, I’m a Dutchman.  On the other hand, they have enhanced our language with some lovely words.  As I never tire of pointing out to intrigued students, the expletive favoured by enraged 1920’s colonels ‘Poppycock!’ really means ‘soft shit’.’ Thanks Martyn!!