2010-03-30

GTAGE: Screw you and your car jack!

Language and slang.gr advisory

Greeks on email have inevitably received at least twice joke emails that feature Greek phrases literally translated into English, to hilarious effect. (For moderate to small values of "hilarious".) The humour lies in the fact that the Greek phrases are idioms, which cannot be translated literally, or that English and Greek have different semantic maps for their vocabularies. Less often, and less amusingly, the humour lies in the fact that a word of Greek kinda sounds like a very different word of English.

Email is not the only venue for Greeks to play with the literal interpretation of idioms. The blog Λεξικό της αργκό (Slang Dictionary), based on a book of the same name, translates slang idioms literally into pictures.

It occurred to me when I got one of those emails yet again last year, that they are an excellent resource for linguistic pedantry. These joke translations offer excellent grounds for explaining why the literal translation doesn't work—and in the process, exploring the pragmatics and semantics of Greek that make them not work. In other words, a great way of posting on Hellenisteukontos without having to do any research.

I was going to start with the list I received in November, but when I got around to it, the list of idioms just wasn't juicy enough. That may be because the list was generated by the second-to-third–generation diaspora, whose command of Greek is certainly not as juicy as in the motherland. The marvelous slang.gr has come to my rescue, not for the first time: user vrastaman, with the aid of other regulars, has posted a extensive listing of such literalisms—as he calls it, a Golden Treasury of Anglo-Greek Expressions (GTAGE): copious, occasionally illustrated, and, unusually, bidirectional.

I'm not going to post today about the titular idiom, we have not seen him yet, and we have removed him John. I want to bundle together several idioms using βγάζω, But I want to get a post out on the idiom I deal with here today, while it is still on the front page of the Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos' Blog.

As it turns out, I've been thinking about this idiom for a while, because it's a nice illustration of implicature and speech acts. Before I explain what that means, the idiom:
Don’t you defecate us you and your cricket: Δεν μας χέζεις εσύ και ο γρύλος σου!
The idiom means "I rebuff your expression of concern." Really. It does.

In classic GTAGE fashion, a figurative use of a word is taken literally: γρύλος is the insect "cricket", but it is also a car jack, since car jacks look like a cricket's legs (I guess). The line is the punchline of a joke, and that's the context Sarantakos brought it up in: a post on punchlines that have become proverbial. Proverbial enough that political cartoonists can use them to express their resentment at the current relation of Greece to the European Union:

Greece, on the torture rack of a car jack, is shown the European Negotiations To Determine A Bail-Out Mechanism. Greece's response: "You, and your car jack!"—meaning, like I said, "I rebuff your expression of concern."

The phrase as cited in GTAGE actually means "why don't you shit on us, you AND your car jack". Not that that's any clearer. I'll explain the reference, but my main point is the oddity of "why don't you shit on me" as an insult: if I want to express my anger at you, why on earth would I invite you to do something bad to me?

The joke explanation first. The phrase is glossed in slang.gr, though under the variant άι σιχτίρ κι εσύ κι ο γρύλος σου—with the much more normal insult άι σιχτίρ "Fuck off" (σιχτίρ is Turkish, άι is probably from Ancient ἄγε "lead! (go!)" The explication is from user acg:
Punchline of an old widely-known joke, now used independently following the Zeitgeist and constituting a separate and officially recognised entity, utilised to describe a situation whereby the subject is wound up and peeved over something on their own, despite the absence of any hint indicating that what they are fretting over will in fact go pear-shaped.
For those who have formerly lived in a fishbowl and do not know the joke: a guy has a flat tire in the forest, at the dead of night, and has no car jack to lift the car up. He sees a farmhouse 500 m away and heads off.

As he's walking, he thinks and mutters to himself: "It's a farmhouse, he's bound to have tools. Surely he'll have a car jack. Wouldn't it be something if he has a car jack and refuses to give it to me. I just want to borrow the thing for half an hour, it's not like I'm going to steal it. Why, the bastard! That bloody miser! Yeah right, you jerk, as if I'm going to make off with your crappy car jack. You just wait until you need something from me, and then I'll straighten your tie for you alright! What kind of an arsehole does this guy think he is, anyway? Refusing to help me in the middle of the night, when the bastard should be coming out and changing my tire himself! But it's my fault for sitting around and begging him in the first place!"

He knocks on the door, and as soon as the villager opens, he says, "why don't you and your car jack just fuck off!"


Right. That's the joke. Hence, "I rebuff your expression of concern." (And also, "My action of rebuffing you is irrational", but I don't think that's the meaning the cartoonist had in mind.)

But why would "fuck off" be rendered as "why don't you shit on us"? (And as it turns out, rendered *more* appropriately?)

Time to drop some science on you. Statements can be true or false. Other things people do with words, other speech acts, can't sensibly be true or false. It's nonsense for a command like "open the window" to be true or false: it something you do or refuse to do. But a command does have felicity conditions, conditions under which it makes sense. If I tell you to move the building with your bare hands, my command is not meaningfully false; but it is pointless, because commands presuppose a preparatory condition, that the action is in fact possible. It's similarly pointless for me to tell you to wash the car while you're already washing it: that's the propositional content condition, that the command has to involve a future action.

When people say something that doesn't make sense, or seems pointless, our first assumption isn't that the person's insane. We assume that when someone tells us something, it is somehow relevant; and when it doesn't immediately seem to be relevant, we try and work out some hidden meaning, which makes the utterance relevant at a deeper level. If we didn't do that search for hidden meaning, there'd be no figures of speech, and no wit. In fact, figures of speech and wit delight us, precisely because they makes go to the extra effort of working out what their point is.

Commands have another felicity condition, the sincerity condition: "the speaker genuinely wants the hearer to perform the requested act". As a corollary of that, if I want you to do X—especially if I want you to do X to me, then X must be something I would want to happen: it is something desirable or useful to me.

Which brings us to "why don't you shit on me". (I'll come to the "us" later.) "Why don't you shit on me" does not sound like something I would want to happen. Yes yes, I have heard about paraphilias, but the point of those kinds of predilections is that the victim gets some sort of kick out of it, so they do want it to happen after all. We have no such context here, so the command seems to be pointless. Like "kill me now" is.

"Kill me now" has a well established figurative meaning, which isn't about commands at all; I leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out how we get from the literal to the figurative meaning. But "why don't you shit on me" does still have a command as its figurative meaning. Let's start ratiocinating.

If literal defecation isn't what is meant, what figurative meanings of χέζω can we use to make sense of this? Here's the Triantafyllidis Dictionary entry:
1. (literal meaning) 2. (metaphorical) a. insult someone vulgarly; b. used to express indifference, contempt; c. (passive) show great cowardice [cf. English shit oneself]

The meaning we want is 2b; but that still violates the desirability condition:
  • Why don't you express indifference/contempt towards me?

Why would you seek out contempt? Let's try something else: If I want you to do X, it may be because that stops you doing the opposite of X. That doesn't help yet, but let's try it:
  • Why don't you stop expressing interest/esteem towards me?

… For the English-speakers in the room: that already sounds more plausible, doesn't it? And it's a classic trick of indirect language, using double negation of X to say X ("he's not unkind"). It sounds more plausible, because while we don't want bad things to happen to us, there are times we can have too much of a good thing happen to us.

In particular, the other person may be doing something *they* think is good to us, and we don't. Let's try to get that in there.
  • Why don't you stop doing things to express interest/esteem towards me?

And because we command something when it is desirable to us, we make that relevant by doing this equation:

    I want you to do something pleasing to me.
  • I want you to stop doing things displeasing to me
  • I want you to stop doing things to express interest/esteem towards me
  • Ergo, the things you are doing to express interest/esteem towards me are displeasing to me

That chain of reasoning underlies "why don't you shit on me". In fact it makes it better than "fuck off" in expressing the joke's sentiment: by asking you to treat me with contempt, I am explicitly rejecting your shows of respect. The English equivalent would be something like "do me a favour, and stop giving a shit about me."

Does that look algebraic to you? Well, if you're Greek, think of the tone of δεν με χέζεις. It's impatient dismissal. You could paraphrase it equally well (though less pungently) as δεν με παρατάς "why don't you leave me alone". And "why don't you leave me alone" is explicitly rejecting someone's show of interest.

There's one more peculiarity to the expression: why "us" and not "me"? I'm guessing here, but this is an equivalent of the English Royal we: by claiming the angry sentiment not just for herself, but for herself and her (absent) posse, the speaker bolsters the authority of the statement: "I , and everyone like me, think you should fuck off." The tenor is quite different though: this is a colloquial artifice in Greek.

The "car jack" is not the form of the expression I was familiar with, btw. The form I knew was δεν μας χέζεις ρε Νταλάρα, "why don't you shit on me, Dalaras", referring to the renowned singer George Dalaras. From Sarantakos' thread, I find this was itself a punchline, in a joke by Harry Klynn. The punchline was so prominent in the early '90s, commenter Ilefoufoutos [e-fufutos] had conjured up a scenario that it might end up in Babiniotis' dictionary, and attract lawsuits from the litigation-happy singer.

I don't know what the joke was, but Dalaras is earnest and serious enough as an artist that the reaction is plausible. (Not for me, I love his rebetika; but I found the reaction says a lot.) To quote another artist who was at times earnest—but not this time:
What that oure Hoost hadde herd this sermonyng,
He gan to speke as lordly as a kyng.
He seide, "What amounteth al this wit?
What shul we speke alday of hooly writ?

Or, as the Pig said to the Deer at around the same time (vv. 428–429):
Ήλθεν και άλλη φιλόσοφος μείζων της αλωπούτζας
και έχανε το στόμαν της και έχεσαν οι πάντες.
Here's a new sophist, greater than the fox!
Her mouth's agape, and everybody shits!

…What an… unfortunate note to finish on. If only I could claim it was a one-off…

3 comments:

  1. There is (inevitably, perhaps) a Jewish joke to the same effect, though as far as I know the punchline has not become proverbial. There are of course many variations, and I have improvised this one rather than quoting it from a particular source:

    An older man and a younger man are sitting side by side on a train. The younger man asks "Can you tell me the time?"

    The older man thinks: Now why does he ask me the time? Is it because he truly wants to know, or because he wishes to have a conversation with me? Clearly the latter. Why? What good is the time to a man on the train? When he gets to his stop, he gets there. Then he can find out what time it is and act accordingly. So, he only wishes to make conversation with me. To what purpose? Clearly, he is a young fellow and therefore unmarried. Unmarried fellows are interested in young women, and when he sees me he naturally assumes that I am a husband and a father, perhaps even the father of a daughter. And this is true! I am the father of a daughter. So by starting a conversation with me, he hopes to find out whether I have a daughter or not. And suppose he finds out that I have one, what then? He will speak flatteringly to me, so that I will think him a fine young man. Perhaps I will even invite him to my house. And if I do invite him to my house, well, he is a handsome young fellow, and naturally my daughter will fall in love with him. And then of course wedding bells will follow, a wedding which I will have to pay for, and I will be stuck with a worthless son-in-law for the rest of my life.... "Drop dead!" [lit. "Go in the ground!"]

    The younger man recoils. "Why 'drop dead'?"

    The older man snarls, "Because, you paskudnyak [maximally insulting epithet], I am not going to marry my only daughter to a man who can't even afford a watch."

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  2. The Turkish is sıçdırmak ( ﺼﭽﺩﺭﻣﻕ ) with a chim, rather than a kha, and it gets "shit" right back into the context. Actually, it is a causative form and means "to make (someone? / yourself?) shit" and it appears to be imperative. My guess is that "ey sıçdır" is all Turkish and means "Go take a shit."

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  3. I really have to say, I used to keep crickets in cute little Japanese cages, and I never saw one whose legs looked like a car jack. I have used car jacks on three continents, so I feel entitled to express myself here.

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