Menefreghismo

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As background to the discussion of Melania Trump's jacket choices, Giovanni Tiso presents "A brief (fascist) history of 'I don't care'", Overland 6/22/2018:

Fascism lay its roots in the campaign for Italy's late entry in the First World War, of which Mussolini was one of the leaders. It was at this time that the phrase 'me ne frego' – which at the time was still considered quite vulgar, along the lines of the English 'I don't give a fuck' – was sung by members of the special force known as arditi (literally: 'the daring ones') who volunteered for the front, to signify that they didn't care if they should lose their lives.

The arditi were disbanded after the war, but many of them volunteered in 1919 for an expedition led by the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio to capture the city of Fiume (Rijeka, in present-day Croatia) and claim it for Italy during the vacuum created by the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the time of this occupation, former arditi also formed the backbone of the original Black Squads during the terror campaigns that began in 1919 and culminated with the 'March on Rome' of 1922, which completed Fascism's swift rise to power. […]

Just as Italy broke with its former allies and charted a stubborn path towards the ruin and devastation of the Second World War, so too the Fascist citizen was encouraged to reject the judgement of others and look straight ahead. It should be remembered in this regard that the regime treated ignorance and proclivity to violence as desirable qualities to be rewarded with positions of influence and power. This required a swift redrawing of the old social norms, and of the language used to signify the moral worth of individuals. 'Me ne frego' was the perfect slogan for the people in charge of overseeing such a program.

Four years ago, speaking at a First World War commemoration in the small town of Redipuglia, Pope Francis linked 'me ne frego' not only with the carnage of that conflict, but also with the horrors of Fascism, recognising its ideological and propaganda value for Mussolini's project. This is the form in which the slogan has survived until the present day, as a linguistic signifier not of generic indifference, but of ideological nostalgia. And because the attempts in Italy and beyond to stem the spread of such signifiers have been comprehensively abandoned, we readily find those words appearing not just on seemingly ubiquitous Fascist-era memorabilia but also on posters, t-shirts, or this line of stickers that can be purchased for $.193 from Redbubble (motto 'awesome products designed by independent artists'), where it was uploaded by user 'fashdivision'.

Roger Benham on Facebook discusses the geographical relationship of this slogan to Melania Trump's home town. And the political associations of "Me ne frego" song are apparently very much alive in popular culture in Italy, and are relevant enough to some people that you can buy bulk packs of a "Unique Historical Italian Fascist replica patch" from "Greater Glory Goods" on amazon.com. But since this is Language Log and not Memetic History Log, we're going to focus on the slogan's morphology, syntax, and semantics.

Wordreference.com glosses fregarsene as "(vulgar) not give a shit"; Collins offers the translation "not to give a damn (about sth/sb)".  There's some discussion (of the analysis and the history) in the Wordreference forums here and here.

This is a reflexive form of the verb fregare, apparently in the meaning "to rub", so that the literal meaning of "me ne frego" would be something like "I (don't) rub myself (about that").

Note that the reflexive pronoun (first-person singular me in the slogan, third-person singular generic se in the dictionary entry) precedes the verb in the slogan, but follows the verb in the dictionary's infinitive form (as it would also in the past participle, the gerund and the imperative). And the particle ne follows the pronoun on either side of the verb — see here for Tom Fox's explanation of Italian clitics. Note also (as Tom Fox explains in the comments) that the negative in the full form "non me ne frego" is often left out — somewhat as in "I could care less".

Less relevantly, "Me ne frego!" was also the title of a 2014 documentary, which Wikipedia describes as "la storia linguistica dell'Italia fascista" (= "the linguistic history of fascist Italy"), covering

la campagna contro i dialetti; la lotta alle parole straniere in nome dell'autarchia linguistica; la repressione delle minoranze linguistiche; le liste di proscrizione delle parole straniere; la sostituzione del pronome voi al pronome allocutivo lei.

the campaign against dialects; the fight against foreign words in the name of linguistic autarchy; the repression of linguistic minorities; the list of forbidden foreign words; the substitution of the pronoun voi for the form of address lei.

More on the documentary here; the whole thing is apparently on YouTube here.

Update — I should add that a semi-true history of Fiume/Carnaro/Rijeka in the period after WWI can be found Bruce Sterling's novel Pirate Utopia.



37 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 8:33 am

    I know nothing of 'me ne frego' but have always been intrigued by the terms "fascist"/"fascism", etc. These days these terms are invariably (in my experience) used in a pejorative sense, but the etymology suggests that there may have been a time when one would be proud to be called a fascist and proud to espouse fascism. Can anyone enlighten me as to where and how recently that might have been ?

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 8:45 am

    A few corrections:

    The infinitive is fregare, with an e at the end. Also ne is not a negative particle, but a pronominal adverb. It's the part that mean "about it."

    Italian clitics are an interesting topic in general. I wrote an entire post about them here.

    [(myl) Thanks — I've fixed the infinitive form and added a link to your explanation of the clitic system.]

  3. Rodger C said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 8:53 am

    @Philip Taylor: Saith the Wiki, "fascist" started in 1915 as a self-designation of people who presumably thought it sounded cool. There are still people who are proud to use it.

  4. Anthony said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 9:10 am

    A fasces (Roman symbol of power) was the main feature on the reverse of the U.S. dime from 1916 to 1945, so presumably the symbol itself was respectable.

  5. Tom S. Fox said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    Just to add to my previous comment: The full phrase is, "Non me ne frego" — "I don't give a damn," but the negation can be dropped from this particular phrase.

    [(myl) Like "I could care less", apparently.]

  6. jih said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 9:50 am

    At the end of the last quote: Perhaps "pronome allocutivo lei" could be better translated as "form of address lei" or "second person pronoun lei".
    In Italian "lei" has two meanings (1) "she" and (2) "you, singular, formal)". The word "allocutive" , which it is not really part of the common English linguistic tradition, but is used in the analysis of some languages, has to do with forms refering to an addressee.
    The quote refers to the fact that the fascists promoted the use of "voi" to address someone formally instead of lei.

    [(myl) Thanks — I've adjusted the translation accordingly.]

  7. lthrogmo said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 11:17 am

    A few years back my daughter visited a friend in Germany. She brought me back a souvenir pair of socks with the words "Null Bock" displayed on them. Neither she nor I know what that meant. She thought they were interesting and that I'd like them because I'd studied German in high school and college. It now appears to me that the phrase might be a German equivalent to "no me frego." Is that true?

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    "I Don't Care" is a song on the third Ramones album and reflected a very common attitude/pose among the punk-rock audience of the time. Invocation of Nazi/Fascist tropes and symbols, or at a minimum a rather insouciant attitude toward them, was another not uncommon theme in that subcultural time and place, but I've never really seen an argument that they were specifically connected. (Other than I guess the point that one of the many many things one did not care about was observing the sort of social conventions and taboos that insoucience-about-swastikas might breach.)

    [(myl) There are lots of contexts for "I don't care". But it seems that there's a special version that anyone from Italy and the Adriatic coast is likely to be sensitive to, as the uses in sports and popular culture suggest.]

  9. KB said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

    lthrogmo: I'm not a native speaker of German, but I don't think "Null Bock" has any ideological significance. I would translate it as something like "no interest" or (less literally) "don't wanna".

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    Separately, while the town in which Mrs. Trump was born in 1970 was in the portion of Slovenia that was occupied (and formally annexed) by Italy for a few years in the 1940's, she mostly grew up in a different town that had been in the zone occupied/annexed by the Germans instead. And her birthplace was far enough inland that it was not in the portion of present-day Slovenia that had an ethnically/linguistically-mixed population (with the Italians mostly emigrating and/or being ethnically cleansed after WW2 and before she was born). I'm sure that growing up in Tito-era Slovenia she had lessons in school about the wickedness of the WW2 occupation and the occupiers, but it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that knowledge of the political history of the Italian phrase that might translate this English phrase ought to be imputed to anyone of her age and geographical background. What if any knowledge or intent ought to be imputed to the Italian designer that apparently made the jacket with the English wording is I guess a different question?

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 12:49 pm

    Getting the idiomatic meaning "I don't care" out of a literal "I don't rub myself" is perhaps parallel to the BrEng "I don't give a toss," which I believe comes from a sense of "toss" not current in AmEng.

  12. the other Mark P said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

    but it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that knowledge of the political history of the Italian phrase that might translate this English phrase ought to be imputed to anyone of her age and geographical background.

    More than a "bit" of a stretch.

    Every now and again you see someone asking for a "Cultural Revolution"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4QoHXTyq_k
    https://www.trademarkia.com/dairyfree-cultural-revolution-87188549.html
    Are we to suppose these people want to kill opponents by their millions as they tear up society? Or have they half heard a phrase and thought it sounded good?

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

    One of the word reference threads linked in the original post https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/me-ne-frego.47787/ has a bunch of commenters seeming to mostly agree that while the historical uses of the Italian phrase are undeniable, they are not known (or were not known as of 2005) to many younger Italian speakers and (separately) many Italian speakers (as of 2005) use the phrase without meaning to evoke those associations. Is there reason to believe that as of 2018 the phrase has been become so marked in Italian that middle-of-the-road speakers no longer utter it in any context in order to avoid giving a false impression of their beliefs and affiliations?

  14. RP said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

    @Philip Taylor,
    Whilst Rodger is right that there are still people who call themselves fascists, it became a lot less common circa 1945.
    In Britain in the 30s, the British Union of Fascists was a well known political organisation which at one point claimed 50,000 members and, briefly, the endorsement of the Daily Mail.
    None of the BUF's successor organisations and no far-right organisation that I have been able to discover in Britain post-1945 (and certainly none of any significance) has called itself "fascist", at least not in its party name and in most cases probably not in its public literature.
    I think you would also find that in most other countries, the term "fascist" has been one that the far right has preferred to avoid using since the war.
    Indeed even in Italy where in some quarters fascism doesn't have such a bad reputation, the neofascist parties tend to avoid titling themselves Fascist, instead having names like Movimento Sociale – Fiamma Tricolore.
    Although the term "fascism" was certainly used by the left to attack its opponents well before WWII, there were also plenty of people in those days who were willing to openly adopt the label.

  15. Dave said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

    J.W. Brewer, I don't have that sense of "toss" in my AmEng, but from the context I suppose it'd be closely related to Fr « je-m'en-foutisme »?

    Anthony, that sense of the US motto is among the reasons I prefer the more symmetric VNVS PRO OMNIBVS, OMNES PRO VNO. Incidentally, the dime may have changed with the events of 1945, but compare the room decoration in the 2018 photo at the top of:
    http://www.elysee.fr/declarations/article/transcription-du-discours-du-president-de-la-republique-emmanuel-macron-devant-le-congres-des-etats-unis-d-amerique/

  16. David Marjanović said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

    "Fascist" started out as a self-designation.

    I don't think "Null Bock" has any ideological significance. I would translate it as something like "no interest" or (less literally) "don't wanna".

    All correct.

    (I'm not a speaker of that particular kind of German, but this phrase is used in most of Germany.)

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

    @Anthony, perhaps even more curious is the fact that the Spanish Guardia Civil (see LL passim) continues to use a logo which includes the fasces even today. As far as I can tell this dates from the fascist dictatorship of Franco (specifically, from 1943), so I have long been puzzled as to why the Law of Historic Memory, which requires public bodies to remove fascist symbols from buildings etc. under their control, hasn't forced the Guardia Civil to change its logo.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

    the more symmetric VNVS PRO OMNIBVS, OMNES PRO VNO

    Render it in English, and it becomes even more symmetric: "One for all, all for one"…

  19. Giovanni Tiso said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

    Anthony, regarding this: "A fasces (Roman symbol of power) was the main feature on the reverse of the U.S. dime from 1916 to 1945, so presumably the symbol itself was respectable."

    That kind of fasces is the symbol commonly used by trade unions in the early decades of the 20th Century, and you'll find it in a lot of architecture from that era (for instance, this building in Wellington: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9a/MLCBuilding.JPG/1200px-MLCBuilding.JPG), it's visual meaning literally being "union is strength".

    The Fascists morphed that symbol into a fasces of axes. In this photo you can see a worker chiselling one such fasces off the central post building in Milan the day after Mussolini was deposed, in July of 1943 (though you can still see many of those in Italy): https://4.bp.blogspot.com/_MFEeDQOmK_g/SavQeoN8oYI/AAAAAAAAAPA/6XVFuau4hII/s400/poste.jpg

  20. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

    A few points that seem worth making.

    1. There are two distinct constructions, one positive positive and personal, the other negative and impersonal, with the same meaning. The first is me ne frego, akin to and perhaps a vulgar replacement of me ne rido, 'I laugh at it.' The second is non me ne frega niente, akin to and perhaps a vulgar replacement of non me ne importa niente, 'it's of no concern to me.'

    Contra Tom Fox, the Treccani dictionary confirms that me ne frego cannot be non me ne frego. On the contrary, I personally feel that: "Te ne freghi!" "Non me ne frego affatto!" would be a perfectly idiomatic dialogue: "You couldn't care less!" "No, I do care!"

    2. These expressions are still vulgar according to the dictionary, but I suppose we no longer perceive them as very vulgar because nobody uses the transitive verb fregare anymore with its historical vulgar meaning of having sexual intercourse with someone. The vulgarity treadmill supplies in both cases another verb whose sexual coarseness is as alive as ever in any speaker's mind: fottere. Thus me ne fotto or non me ne fotte … where to me the latter is too coarse for the polite ending … niente but demands instead a profanity such as … un cazzo.

    3. As the Treccani dictionary also confirms, the impersonal negative construction is more common. I personally feel that the most natural translation of "I couldn't care less" is non me me potrebbe fregare di meno. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that this preference is at least partly due to the fact that many (though by no means all) Italians remain aware that me be frego was a fascist motto.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 5:22 pm

    The Guardia Civil may want to compare notes with the U.S. Senate, whose official seal still includes the fasces (actually a pair of them). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_of_the_United_States_Senate. While "fascism" is viewed extremely negatively in the US and would not be used as a self-identifier outside of groups that would be fringey even by fringe standards, the fasces as a symbol is apparently not skunked to the extent that, for example, the swastika is.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

    I should have in my prior comment included this link to an article from a few years ago describing the large number of currently-standing government buildings in Washington, D.C. with fasces motifs as part of their decor, many of which were apparently erected in the 1920's and '30's while Mussolini was actually in power. https://www.city-journal.org/html/when-fasces-aren%E2%80%99t-fascist-13651.html

  23. John said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

    The fasces are used all over (historic) US monuments. Lincoln rests his arms on them at the Lincoln memorial and the House of Representatives speaks in front of them. (They also frame the windows of my local 1930s PO.) In origin they are the symbol of ultimate political authority in ancient Rome, the rods with which the consuls could have people beaten. The axes with which they could have people beheaded were removed when in the city of Rome and the US fasces always lacked them.

    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lincoln_statue.jpg

    http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/photographs/large/c12600-25A.jpg

  24. Chips Mackinolty said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

    @Philip Taylor, the word fascista/fascisti was taken up in the 1920s by Mussolini and his followers but has a longer history. The fasci siciliani that grew in Sicily in the 1890s was an agrarian/urban movement with both socialist and anarchist tendencies. Fasci were established throughout the island and threatened the entrenched interests of largely absentee large agrarian landowners. The movement was crushed in 1894 with the despatch of 40,000 troops to the island. Fasci refers to a bundle of sticks (along the lines of "you can break one stick, but not a bundle of sticks held together") and was a symbol of the Roman empire

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 6:21 pm

    On a possibly related subject, I was recently surprised to see this instruction on a math test written by people in their 50s and 60s: "Do your work on a separate paper […] Write only your name and your final solution on this test sheet."

  26. Marcos said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

    Interestingly, there is a word in Mexico, "valemadrismo", which means something similar. "Me vale madres" (literally, "it's worth mothers to me") is a vulgar way of saying "I don't care". "valemadrismo" is a kind of apathy, indifference or cynicism.

  27. maidhc said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 9:58 pm

    If Eva Tanguay were still with us, how surprised she would be to find herself back in the news.

  28. Viseguy said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 10:15 pm

    Is the default trans-/inter-/a-national position nowadays not to give a damn/shit/fuck about anything, not even babies wailing for their hauled-off mothers? If so, then perhaps Melania's jacket was meant as the equivalent of an item of apparel with nothing written on it, the semiotic analog to "sometime a cigar is just a cigar". Maybe Melania is just a trans-/inter-/a- citizen of the world. Or maybe just damn/shit/fuck. Me ne vado adesso.

  29. Graeme said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 10:29 pm

    Fasci-nating. Am I alone though in sensing something close to a semantic inversion? The road from "I don't care about personal danger if the collective prospers" to "Look at me, who doesn't care about your stuff/woke issues" is a long one. That maps the shift from traditional, corporatist conservatism to a post-modern neo-conservatism marked by corporations and personal consumption..

  30. Robert Davis said,

    June 25, 2018 @ 10:40 pm

    So, is it: I could care less. Or: I couldn't care less.

  31. Philip Anderson said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 7:00 am

    @Chips Mackinolty
    The fasces were a symbol of the Roman Republic, and of the power wielded by elected officials, before the Empire, and hence appropriate for the American republic.

  32. Chips Mackinolty said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 7:31 am

    @Philip Anderson, thanks, I'd never known that distinction before.

  33. Thomas Rees said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

    @John, the axe-head on the Mercury dime is pretty prominent!

  34. Roger Lustig said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 7:00 pm

    re: Null Bock, a German expression for "it doesn't affect me" is "Kratzt mich nicht." (Doesn't scratch me.) That's pretty close to the rub at the root of fregare.

  35. Nathan said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

    Fascinating discussion, interesting phrase, but I was struck by the beginning of the big quotation:

    "Fascism lay its roots in the campaign"

    What in the world is "lay its roots in"? Which verb, in which tense, is "lay"?

    [(myl) I presume that it's OED sense 7.a. "To place in a position of rest on the ground or any other supporting surface; to deposit in some situation specified by means of an adverb or phrase". And the relationship to the intransitive lie would be the general inchoative/causative alternation, e.g. "the door opened" ↔ "they opened the door", with the added confusion of lie vs. lay.]

  36. ktschwarz said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

    No doubt an editing error for "Fascism's roots lay in the campaign".

  37. Eric said,

    June 29, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    In the sometimes-a-cigar department, there was a brand of Italian cigarettes marketed to fascists called Me Ne Frego and handed out to troops on their way to Ethiopia in 1935, as Carl Ipson discusses in his book Fumo: Italy's Love Affair with the Cigarette (you can see a pack here: http://romethesecondtime.blogspot.com/2017/01/carl-ipsens-fumo-italys-love-affair.html)

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