"Why you (not) sleep with Mother Teresa?"

« previous post | next post »

This post combines three LL themes into one peculiar anecdote — with added beer. We've often analyzed cases where a phrase seems to come out with one negation too many or too few; we've tried to follow the FCC's reasoning about the "inherent sexual connotations" of the "F-word"; and we've devoted many posts to untangling confused translations.  Today's trifecta winner comes courtesy of two edgy young Scottish brewers, the European Entrepreneur of the Year competition, and former Roumanian president Emil Constantinescu.

You can read the (brewers' account of the) whole story here. It starts with the founding of a new microbrewery:

Martin [Dickie] and James [Watt] were bored of the industrially brewed lagers and stuffy ales that dominate the UK market. We decided the best way to fix this undesirable predicament was to brew our own beers. Consequently in April 2007 BrewDog was born.

Shortly after its founding, their company was shortlisted for the Entrepreneur of the Year award in Scotland. In the course of filling out the forms, they encountered this question:

10. In no more than 300 words, please describe the organization's approach to corporate social responsibility, making reference to any policies, strategies or procedures in relation to environmental impact, stakeholder relations and the role of the company in the community.

James comments:

I did not want to do what most other companies would do in this situation and invent some spiel about walking old ladies dogs, saving the odd panda at lunch time and adopting a young whale with a below average IQ.

So I gave an honest answer. After all, they would not give Entrepreneur of the Year to a couple of 26 year olds anyway.

His answer was brief as well as honest: "I am not fucking Mother Teresa". By which he meant, of course, "I am emphatically not a philanthropist". Or, as he puts it at greater length in the blog post,

Young companies are about surviving, expanding and paying off debt, especially in the current financial climate. We are not yet in the stage where we have the luxury of philanthropy […]

Despite (or perhaps because of?) this, Martin and James won the 2008  Tenon Entrepreneur of the Year award; and their victory apparently carried with it an automatic entry into the 2009 European Entrepreneur of the Year competition. Since James was on vacation, Martin went to Rome by himself for the next stage of the process.

I was summoned into the room and handed over the pen drive with the info and was introduced to the panel. The initial atmosphere was a bit frosty as I commenced the presentation. […]  I set about enchanting the judges with some Brewdog magic. After 15 minutes of full on PowerPoint rock ‘n roll they sat captivated. Or at least I thought they were captivated.

[Contest judge] Jean Stephens [CEO of RSM International] was unable to get the words out to complain, he was so shocked and embarrassed. Our original entry form was soon thrust in front of [me] with the phrase ‘I am not fucking Mother Teresa' underlined and high-lighted. The former Romanian President then stepped in and asked [me]; "Why you sleep with Mother Teresa?"

The original, slightly less offensive meaning, was now completely lost in translation. He had understood the sentence to mean that we were not having intimate relations with Mother Teresa as opposed to the intended meaning of us not being saintly philanthropists. It took allot of explaining just to clear the first allegation before I even got onto trying to justify the original meaning to the scowling panel.

At this point, we have a bit of an exegetical puzzle. The context, and the explanation in the next paragraph, suggests that Mr. Constantinescu's question should have been "Why you not sleep with Mother Teresa?" This is also the implication of the way the story is introduced, earlier in the same blog post: "The Former President of Romania,  Emil Constantinescu accused BrewDog founder Martin Dickie of not sleeping with an international icon."

So maybe there's a typo in the blog post, omitting the "not". That's certainly the simplest explanation, and makes for the best story.

An alternative interpretation is that Mr. Constantinescu was so puzzled by the whole situation that he himself left out the "not", either because he was confused about what the English sentence meant, or because of a stress-induced speech error.

I'm going to go with the first interpretation, since the whole thing is in the "too good to check" category anyhow.

[Note: the blog post as a whole seems to have been written by James Watt, incorporating some contributions from Martin Dickie; as a result, the crucial Rome-presentation passage is partly in the first person and partly in the third person. I've changed two instances of "Martin" to "me", for consistency and clarity. ]

[Hat tip: Johan Anglemark]


  1. mollymooly said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    I sympathise with Constantinescu, because I too interpreted "I am not fucking Mother Teresa" as "I am not having sex with [the decomposing corpse of] Mother Teresa" rather than "I am not a goddam saint" and had to think quite hard to construe the intended meaning. I don't know whether this was because or in spite of the priming supplied by this post's title. My interpretation was that James had set the bar for CSR very low indeed. If Google changed its mission statement from "Don't be evil" to "Don't fuck Mother Teresa", maybe people would stop accusing it of hypocrisy.

  2. Speculator 5000 said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    Or perhaps he meant "Why would you sleep with Mother Teresa?" (as in, why would anyone suggest doing that in the first place). Don't know what level of fluency he has in English, so perhaps I am wrongly impugning his English skills.

  3. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    Isn't a third possibility that Constantinescu meant something like "Why are we even discussing the possibility that you may or may not have slept with Mother Teresa?"?

    (BTW, I like the two question marks in what I just wrote, though I'm not sure offhand what most style guides would say.)

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    In most similar contexts you could reduce the risk of this particular ambiguity by using the alternate construction of the form "I'm not Jesus [intensifier] Christ." But here the placement of the intensifier vis a vis "Mother" would cause yet another potential ambiguity. Maybe he should have used "bloody" instead. Does that work in Scotland, or is it only a south of the border thing?

    If they ultimately feel the need for a corporate social responsibility policy, why not find a nearby group of nuns engaged in works of mercy and supply them with free beer?

  5. David Fried said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    My interpretation was exactly the same as mollymooly's. "We meet a minimum standard of social responsibility, as demonstrated by the fact that we are not fucking Mother Teresa. What else do you want from us?"

  6. rpsms said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    In my opinion, not fucking mother theresa would be a good deed.

  7. Dave said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    mollymooly: "I sympathise with Constantinescu, because I too interpreted "I am not fucking Mother Teresa" as "I am not having sex with [the decomposing corpse of] Mother Teresa" rather than "I am not a goddam saint""

    Everything is clear if you substitute "freaking" (or whatever) for the problematic word!

  8. majolo said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Tangentially, I note that the first quotation provides another data point in favor of "bored of", which you have dealt with previously.

  9. Chris said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    Ambiguity between the copula and copulation… it's a wonderful fucking language, isn't it?

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

    My interpretation was the same as mollymooly's and I think the problem is that this just doesn't work well in print. If I had heard him say it, I'm sure the inflection would have left no doubt as to the meaning.

  11. D. Sky Onosson said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Mabe the problem lies with the "Mother" in Mother Teresa. Ordinarily, one would be able to insert "fucking" medially, as J.W. Brewer points out in the example "I'm not Jesus [intensifier] Christ." However, replacing this with Mother Teresa would lead to: "I'm not Mother fucking Teresa", which would be ambiguous with "I'm not motherfucking Teresa" – not the intended meaning. Perhaps this is why the expletive was placed before the name. Ambiguity avoidance leading to another ambiguity?

  12. Lee S said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    All would have been well if they'd just gone with, "We're not Mother fucking Teresa." Actually, maybe it wouldn't have.

  13. Russell said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    I'm on board with SQB on this one. I think if the former president actually had asked, "Why (are/do) you not sleep with Mother Teresa?" we'd still be puzzled because the question sounds like he expects there to be fucking (cf "why do you not wear your underwear outside your pants?" requires an extraordinary, not a canonical, undergarment-wearing situation)

  14. sleepnothavingness said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    It's worth pointing out that in Scottish English, writing "I'm no fucking Mother Teresa" has an alternative (colloquial) interpretation synonymous with using "not" (as in "I'm no doin' anythin'!"). It runs the risk of being thought "lower class", though, and hence may have been eschewed for that reason. Perhaps an arthrous construction would have been better, if the dodgy intensifier were still to be included.

  15. sleepnothavingness said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    And the tmesis option – "I'm not Mother Ter-fucking-resa!" – doesn't survive the process of transcription, now I think about it.

  16. Sili said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    I didn't get it till J.W. Brewers comment …

    It seemed to me to say that they were indeed not brown-nosing the old hag.

    Funny thing, language.

  17. Rick S said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    If Constantinescu had indeed said "Why you not sleep with Mother Teresa", wouldn't that have been even more awkward/hilarious? Most anglophones would take that as either a suggestion ("Why don't you…") or an innocent question with unseemly implications ("…Everybody else has!").

    [(myl) I conjecture that this is what he actually *did* say. As I noted in the body of the post, I agree with you that this makes a better story. ]

    For the record, I, too, interpreted the original statement to mean "BrewDog exhibits corporate social responsibility by resisting defiling cultural icons." Either interpretation sets the bar low enough to get the point across, but the smartass one is much funnier.

  18. peter said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    In contrast to some commentators here, I read the sentence James wrote in the way he intended it (and I am not British). Consequently, when I got to the report of the interview, I burst out laughing at the mis-reading of the sentence by the panel members. Having endured scores of cross-European project meetings, such mis-understandings are very common, and are usually frustrating to all involved; this is one of the funniest I've seen or heard of in some time.

  19. Arjun said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    Perhaps the learned crowd here is already familiar with the following classic of pornolinguistics, but for those who are not: http://lonniechu.com/QUANG.html

  20. dr pepper said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

    Hagiographers take note. The matron saint of compassion has performed another miracle. But this time she revealed a taste for hellenic style retribution by giving the foul mouthed punks a wide forum for their public disgrace.

  21. Dan Scherlis said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    As a native American-English speaker, it was immediately clear to me that James Watt:

    1) intended the intensifier, and

    2) is guilty of sloppy spelling. The intensifier is, in my experience, "fuckin' ", not "fucking".

    [(myl) But Watt is Scottish, so for him I guess the norm is different. ]

  22. Dan Scherlis said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    So I got it half right, then?

    He did misspell, but the correct spelling (for him) would've been "fookin' ".

  23. Peter Bill said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    James' comment was a perfect answer to a nonsensical question which should have been the subject of an investigation on its own. No wonder capitalism is reeling if tiny companies have to pay lip service to such concepts as 'the organization's approach to corporate social responsibility, making reference to any policies, strategies or procedures in relation to environmental impact, stakeholder relations and the role of the company in the community.' Only if you are a huge and financially sucessful comoany can you espouse such rubbish.

  24. Chris Waigl said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    I am very used to moving around in environments where English is used among non-native speakers, and my interpretation of Mr Constantinescu's question, assuming he did indeed leave out the "not", agrees with commentator Speculator 5000 above: "Why would you be sleeping with Mother Theresa in the first place?" or "Why is the question whether or not you're having sex with M. T. relevant here at all?" I've often heard non-native speakers contract their more complex thought process into a manageable question in this way.

    As for those who'd have interpreted the answer as referring to sexual intercourse with Mother Theresa, might I suggest they could have been influenced by this post's title?

  25. Terry Collmann said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    This is not the first time Brewdog has caused controversy over its use of language.

    Excellent beers, btw – I recom3end to Mr Pullum (as a Scottish-based LLogger more likely to find it) the Paradox stout, matured in whisky barrels …

  26. cf said,

    June 16, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    This is possibly an entirely idiosyncratic reaction on my part, but the degree of ambiguity–or my inclination to read his sentence as either a rejection of charity or a rejection of necrophila–shifts dramatically when "I am" is replaced by "I'm". The subtle shift in sentence rhythm between the "I am not" and "I'm not" variations when I read the text in my mind is probably the culprit; keeping "I" and "am" separate seems more emphatic, more of a denial of guilt. It's a reasonable sentiment, either way.

  27. Squander Two said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    Dan Scherlis,

    No, fookin' doesn't sound anything like Scottish pronunciation. The accent you're thinking of could be from the North of England.

RSS feed for comments on this post