In high school I studied French—well, it would be closer to the truth to say that I sat in a class for three years where the teacher and two other students spoke French, while the rest of us were just thankful to not have to take Spanish from the hateful Seńora.
Regardless of one’s age, when learning a new language, one of the first tasks is to try to figure out how to cuss in that language. Remember how titillating the song lyric “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” was in the 1970s? Instantly millions of Americans knew how to speak some sexy and slightly naughty French, or so they thought.
I remember the day in the first week of French class my freshman year when someone secretly shared the word merde—sh*t—with the rest of us in class. How we howled with laughter in the hallway going to our next classes. For the next month, we tried to incorporate our new foreign word into our everyday conversations. If a friend did something stupid, he was a merdehead. Drop something out of your locker and you could proudly disclaim “MERDE!” in front of everyone—they didn’t know what you meant and, since the word was foreign, technically, you weren’t swearing. Not know an answer in algebra and you instantly had merde for brains. There was no cleverness in our hunt for the perfect use of merde. The most nonsensical usage would send us all into hysterics for hours.
In America, we seem to have different levels of appropriateness for cuss, curse, or swear words. As children we all learn how to cuss—politely. Words like “shoot” “darn it” “crud” “gosh” “fudge” are all used in place of the swear words adults use. When I was little, the word “crap” would cause a flurry of condemnation from my parents. It was considered a cuss word. I was mortified when I came home year from college on Spring Break one year and heard my sister, who was 10, use “crap” at the dinner table in conversation. When she said it I flinched, because I knew she was going to get scolded, at the very least. But I flinched for nothing, no one else at the table reacted to it. My father kept eating, my mother filled her glass with pop, and my other sister and brother did not snicker at a “dirty” word being used at the table. It was as if she had used the word “daisies.” I was pissed—where had my family’s decency gone?
As we get older, the swear words we used as children get replaced by the adult versions. These adult versions are more acceptable in a wider, more public setting, but there are still limitations on when and where they should be used. It would be inappropriate to say to your grandmother at the table during Sunday lunch, “Shit grandma, you are one funny woman.” That same comment made to a friend over a beer at the local pub on a Saturday night would hardly make anyone blink twice. The slang names for certain body parts, both male and female, are included in this group, too. Naturally, there are words that one should never use, regardless of the situation and people present. The “c” word and the “f” bomb fall into this category.
Today’s “Word of the Day” is CAZZO. It is an Italian swear word—a not so very polite Italian swear word. It is a word that I learned from an American friend of mine before I traveled to Italy for the first time in 2001. Cazzo falls into the “male body part” category, but it also falls into the “I just spilled a glass of milk all over my desk” category. This is not something typical of an American swear word. My mother might say “s**t” under her breath if she screwed something up, but she would never say “c**k.” Naturally, it makes no sense in English and I have yet to figure out how it works as it does in Italian.
Several weeks ago, while we were in Venice, we stopped by a Pasticceria—a pastry shop—to purchase several special and very Venetian desserts to take with us to Viterbo and give to the family. Usually we arrive with flowers, but this time I thought it would be more appropriate to arrive with some Venetian treats, since Nonna is from that part of Italy.
We entered the shop and I waited for the woman working there to finish with other customers before trying to be cute and use my infantile Italian to show her how charming I was by attempting her native tongue. Just as I started, another customer entered the shop. Knowing that my transaction was going to take some time, given that I speak slowly and that I wanted an assortment of pastries, I waved the pastry woman on to help her newly arrived customer. The customer was French and this seemed to irritate the woman. As she begrudgingly helped the French customer, more French citizens arrived to ask her questions about products, pointing to objects and indicating that they wanted to “look” at the item with their hands and not only with their eyes. With every interaction and transaction, the woman would say “cazzo.” And she was not trying too hard to conceal her frustration with France—she was speaking in full voice.
Finally, the traffic in and out of the shop ceased and it was again my turn at bat with the woman. In Italian, I explained to her that I going to be traveling to see my grandmother in Viterbo and that I wanted to bring her some pastries from Venice because she grew up in this area. I then apologized—Mi dispiace, il mio Italiano non è buono—for how bad my Italian was. Usually, this garnishes a complimentary response from my Italian counterpart—No, no, no. Il tuo Italiano è molto buono. I usually thank them for thinking that my Italian is really good and then I continue to speak and slaughter their native tongue right in front of their smiling and encouraging faces. I did not get the usual response from this Italian woman.
“Don’t worry. In Italian schools, they don’t teach Italian either. My son is taught English as a primary language and either French or Spanish as a secondary language. Cazzo! It is true. They expect our kids to learn Italian at home. Cazzo!” she replied, in an unending tirade about Italian schools.
I couldn’t believe that she was cursing in front of me. I had never heard an Italian swear in conversation with me. When I lived with the family, they never swore—or, at least, I never figured out that they were if it indeed was happening. Nonna would drop something on the floor and instead of saying “damn,” she would just huff and call herself an idiot. I never learned any choice expletives while staying there.
“Cazzo!”—Another French tourist had walked in, and the woman tiredly swore and left me to help a guy buy a bottle of water.
She returned shortly and muttered something to me, which was spoken too fast for me to understand, and then said, “Va’ fa’n culo.” WOW! That expression is quite vulgar (it tells a person to go “f” himself) and I have no idea why she said that of the Frenchman as he left. As we continued to select pastry, she continued to complain about the linguistic deficiencies of her son’s school—all the while, peppering her conversation with “cazzo.” Eventually, we left with two bags of pastries, burning ears, and a great story.
The next day we traveled to Viterbo to see the family and I plated the pastries, serving them after we finished our meal—Nonna made short ribs in a tomato sauce. The sauce was served with penne pasta and the ribs were served separately as the second course.
There were “ohs” and ahs” as we were thanked for being so kind in bringing treats. Well, I immediately had to tell them the story of the “Cazzo donna”—c**k lady. The table erupted when I said that and they wanted to know more.
I explained the process, and conversation, of buying the pastries. They howled with laughter every time the woman swore in the story. When I got to the “va’ fa’n culo” moment, Marianna (Alessandra’s 29-year-old daughter) jumped in the conversation and said, “Oh Mark, you should have told her, “I see you were educated at Oxford.” I choked on my pastry as we all laughed with Marianna. She is very clever, as is the entire family for that matter.
Merde, I love Italy!
**The photo is of a statue in the exhibit of Etrsucan and Roman artifacts at the Vatican museums. The statue is complete above the navel, but I thought this angle was more apropos.