Friday, May 25, 2012

Bilingual Cursing


As every kid, old and young, knows, cursing is fun.  It is emotionally satisfying both to express your feelings and grab the attention of the people around you.  The guilty pleasure of a shocked, unhappy face of an adult is the whipped cream to the already good feeling of emotional release. 
A good curse has three elements: content, sound, and context.  The content generally refers to sexual anatomy or God.  Sound is no less important.  Hard, accented sounds are the most effective, such as  sh, k, or an  accented u.  Finally, the cultural context is important. Cursing has to shock.  The F-word in English has become a banal modifier in many sub-cultures of the United States.  George Carlin’s brilliant comment about being able to say on television that your pricked your finge, but not the opposite is a classic demonstration of that.  On the subject of context, Umberto Eco of the Name of the Rose fame wrote a wonderful discussion of the art of translating a truly shocking curse in the various languages from the mild equivalent of God Damn in some cultures to explicit descriptions of sexual activity in other languages.  So, a good curse must have some meaning , sound forceful, and break rules of etiquette.
An interesting phenomenon is when curses are transplanted without translation into other languages.  Although the sound and maybe the context remains the same, the meaning is somewhat lost.  For example, in the Eretz Nehederet TV show, an Israeli satire program, in a series of skits on the Iranian nuclear treat, the scientists keeping on saying “pak it”, a clear reference to the English f-word.  However, the use of the word leads to laughter, not shock.  Israelis use a Russian curse K binimat to mean to go to hell.  The actual Russian is considered extremely crude, suggesting that a person return to his/her mother, physically.  My personal favorite of a bilingual and effective curse is my mother’s shit alors, which we both use on the tennis court after blowing an approach shot or overhead slam.  The French term merde alors neither sounds violent enough (d as compared to the t in shit) nor is understood by most people since French is not that much of an international language any more. The added alors raises a somewhat overused term to another level.  Best of all, we express our deep annoyance at blowing an easy shot and get the other players to look at us.  What can be better than that?

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Feast Culture

Feasting or festive eating with friends if you so prefer is a universal human pleasure.  People enjoy communal meals throughout the world, no matter how rich or poor the country, family, or land is. Of course, the food on the menu is clearly localized, generally including native and highly-valued delicacies. A more subtle difference between feasts is their styles.
For example, an American feast, such as Thanksgiving, is primarily judged on the size of the food: the bigger, the better.  People brag about the weight of the Turkey, the number of pans of sweet potatoes, and the diameter of the apple pies.  Of course, the settings, including the plates, knife, fork, spoons, and napkins, should be as festive as possible, ideally with some Thanksgiving motif.  People sit properly in their shares and stuff their face elegantly so to speak.  (I would add that they watch the Detroit Lions lose a football game, but that is not necessarily true now).
A French feast is a different scene entirely.  Not only are the settings fancy, but the food is measured by its fanciness and creativeness, defined as putting together foods and tastes that I never thought would go together.  What is lacking in quantity is easily made up in esthetics and time.  Enjoying food involves all of the senses, taking one’s time to appreciate each culinary work of art.  Of course, wine provides the transition from hors d’oeuvre to soup to main dish to salad to bread and cheese to desert to coffee.  The ideal meal is signaled by the fact that the diner cannot decide what the piece de resistance of the occasion was.  Also, curiously, although the meal took over two hours and involved a respectable amount of food, the diner is neither hungry nor stuffed, but instead just right. (Somehow, on the way home, the guests discuss at which restaurant they will eat the next day.)
Israeli feasts, being Israeli, reflect the ethnic background of the host.  Yekke (German) and mainland French families will be more formal while Sephardic families tend to be more relaxed.  The key is the variety of foods.  An example of this is the issue of salads.  Israeli weddings and picnics are measured by the number of salads to choose from.  The term “too much” is mentioned but not meant seriously:  there is no such thing as too much salads.  Anything that goes with Pita bread is fine.  Pickled, garlicky, salty, hot and sweet, red, green, white and yellow, variety is the spice of life.  Of course, the salads, a meal in themselves, are followed by barbeque, preferably steak.  It would appear eating chicken is a sign of poverty.  In house parties, the emphasis is on the variety of main dishes: meat, chicken, and fish (for those fish lovers out there).  Cakes of all kinds are the preferred dessert as compared to pies.
So, there are numerous manners of overeating.  Feel free to share any local feast customs.