Antonin and Beppe

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Victor Steinbok sends in an example of pan-European taboo avoidance at the BBC ("Profile: Beppe Grillo", BBC News Europe 2/26/2013):

Time magazine chose him as a "European Hero" that year, saying he used "over-the-top humour to probe the serious social issues that leaders don't want to touch".  

In 2007 he organised "V-Day" – the V stands for a well-known Italian obscenity – when a petition demanding clean politics in Italy gathered 300,000 signatures in the space of a few hours.

I wonder what fraction of the BBC's readership knows the "well-known Italian obscenity" that Auntie avoids mentioning? Anyhow, as discussed in an earlier post ("Everything is too appropriate these days", 4/5/2006), Associate Justice Antonin Scalia certainly knows this word, and is not afraid using it:

[Peter] Smith was working as a freelance photographer for the Boston archdiocese’s weekly newspaper at a special Mass for lawyers Sunday when a Herald reporter asked the justice how he responds to critics who might question his impartiality as a judge given his public worship.  

“The judge paused for a second, then looked directly into my lens and said, ‘To my critics, I say, ‘Vaffanculo,’ ” punctuating the comment by flicking his right hand out from under his chin, Smith said.

 The Wiktionary entry for vaffanculo gives the etymology as

Contraction of "vai a fare in culo"; literally: "go to do it in the ass".

and glosses it as "(vulgar, slang) Fuck off! Get lost!"


  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    If I might comment, that's not Wikipedia, that's wiktionary.

    [(myl) Oops. I knew that… fixed now.]

  2. Paolo said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

    Well, it looks like Scalia doesn't know Italian gestures that well. What he did means "I don't give a f*ck", or rather "I couldn't care less" and it is not regarded as particularly vulgar.

    He should have been using il gesto dell'ombrello, see bras d'honneur in Wikipedia.
    Here is a picture: Beppe Grillo, Vaffanculo

    [(myl) In fairness to Justice Scalia, he agrees with you. As I wrote back in 2006:

    Scalia sent a letter to the Herald giving his side of the story. He describes a different gesture and a different meaning:

    I responded, jocularly, with a gesture that consisted of fanning the fingers of my right hand under my chin. Seeing that she did not understand, I said “That’s Sicilian,” and explained its meaning – which was that I could not care less.

    He quotes from Luigi Barzini's The Italians to support his view of the gesture's meaning:

    “The extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin means: ‘I couldn’t care less. It’s no business of mine. Count me out.’ This is the gesture made in 1860 by the grandfather of Signor O.O. of Messina as an answer to Garibaldi. The general, who had conquered Sicily with his volunteers and was moving on to the mainland, had seen him, a robust youth at the time, dozing on a little stone wall, in the shadow of a carob tree, along a country lane. He reined in his horse and asked him: ‘Young man, will you not join us in our fight to free our brothers in Southern Italy from the bloody tyranny of the Bourbon kings? How can you sleep when your country needs you? Awake and to arms!’ The young man silently made the gesture. Garibaldi spurred his horse on.” (Page 63.)

    But people from different parts of Italy — and even in some cases from the same part — seem to have different ideas about what this gesture means and how offensive it is. See the earlier post for some details, and this follow-up post for more.

    The consensus seems to be that in some areas, the gesture means "I don't care", and in other areas, it's a forceful form of "no"; in both cases, vulgar but not obscene.]

  3. Paolo said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

    @myl, thanks. I am from northern Italy, so to me the chin flick means "I couldn't care less" (chi se ne frega!?!). I don't do it, but if I did, I would use only two fingers, the index and middle ones, the others closed, as in a fist, and I would move them a couple of times "parallel" to the chin rather than "perpendicular" like in the Scalia picture (my elbow would be almost at shoulder level).

    Anyway, associating vaffanculo to the chin flick does not make any sense, at least not in Italy.

  4. Paolo said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

    For Italian speakers, from
    gesti (Enciclopedia dell'Italiano Treccani):

    Talvolta in una certa regione un gesto ha un significato un po’ diverso da quello che ha nel resto d’Italia: lisciarsi il mento col dorso della mano in tutto il paese vuol dire «chi se ne frega», ma a Napoli a volte è semplicemente una negazione: «no», «non», «niente affatto».

    Apparently the chin flick means "no" only in Naples.

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

    Curious that the Wikipedia entry for "bras d'honneur" uses a picture of Astro Boy of all things. The gesture most certainly doesn't mean "up yours" in Japan (more like "can do!") Maybe they felt a picture of the real thing might be too offensive to the delicate sensibilities of their readership.

  6. Bill Burns said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:47 pm

    Around New York City at least (and into nearby New Jersey), vaffanculo is often pronounced and spelled "fongool".

  7. RP said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 6:24 am

    The fact that the BBC haven't used the Italian taboo word isn't in itself sufficient to show that they are avoiding it. Perhaps it is precisely because the word is meaningless to and unfamiliar to most of the BBC's audience that they didn't bother including it. If they had included it, they would have needed to say "the V stands for 'vaffanculo', a well known Italian obscenity" rather than "the V stands for 'vaffanculo'". The extra word would have added nothing useful for the average reader. It might even have slowed them down while they hesitated over how to pronounce it in their head.

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