Tuesday, June 18, 2013

An angry rant of an orthography vigilante

Everyone has surely witnessed the sorry and ridiculous sight of a native English speaker trying to show off his knowledge of a foreign language. What I did not realize until now is that even the supreme masters of English prose suffer at times from the delusion that they can speak tongues, such as Spanish, without assistance.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens is an example. It is set out in the most powerful and clear English style, though, as soon as alcohol is mentioned, emotions ruin its perfection somewhat. I thoroughly enjoyed the book until Hitchens started speaking Spanish. Che Guevara no ha muerte! Must be a misprint. But then: libertad por los maricons! Oh, no. Finally: cono! This potent swearword denotes in Spanish either a union of lines passing through a common vertex, or the reproductive organ of a fir tree. Yes, the female organ, but of a fir tree, for God's sake.

One might argue that Hitchens was a communist and, hence, an enemy of orthography as such. But then, he was the enemy of Spanish orthography only, his English being far above impeccable. Also, he liked Margaret Thatcher. Most probably, he simply wrote down whatever his memory threw up and the copyeditor at Hachette couldn't be bothered to do his job. Worse things happen: I was bewildered when the Cambridge copyeditor replaced the word compatibility in my book by a monstrous compitibility.

And then I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. This is pure magic - black magic, if you take the content into the account - but still nothing short of supernatural, an amazing show of killing power the English language can have. The bloodletting in the book alternates between US and Mexico and there are many Spanish words embedded into McCarthy's prose. Such as piñole, a mysterious substance consumed throughout the book. McCarthy didn't quite make it up: pinole does, indeed, exist. Pinole, not piñole. This spurious tilde looks as dreadful to my eye as a fake accent in the name of some pseudo-French establishment, designed to make it look more authentic, more boutique.

Now, I am not easily scared by a misplaced tilde - this is really a minor mistake - and do you know that Nabokov wrote bycyle in his drafts? - but I was reading the 25th anniversary edition, freshly reset in print. How does an error survive for so long? Did anyone read the book?

Another scare I suffered while reading Blood Meridian was the station of Alamo Mucho. In this case, however, McCarthy was innocent: this was an authentic example of the Great American Toponymical Imbecility so widespread in the south of the US. I guess the monkey who gave this name to the place formerly known as Alamo Mocho thought that Mexicans, being utter savages, cannot be trusted with their own language. Mocho? What the fuck is mocho? It must be mucho - you know, because, besame mucho. (I'm afraid I have seen this attitude in people with PhD's in exact sciences. Nowhere to hide.)

I think I have complained enough. There's just one mystery I absolutely must mention since the place names were brought up. How is it possible to call a town Rio Vista in a country where every other inhabitant can tell you que no, señor, esto no tiene sentido? 


  1. I know exactly what you mean, and I hate this state of affairs too. I don't think I've ever read a correct three word Spanish phrase in an American novel.

    By the way, you're a victim of Muphry's Law [1]: you probably meant "fir tree".

    [1] http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muphry's_law

  2. Eh, yes, thank you :)

    I guess a fur tree, if existed, would not be unlike a fir tree. But I'm not even trying to imagine its reproductive organs.