April 05, 2006

Everything is too appropriate these days

So says John Fiore, the actor who plays Gigi Cestone on The Sopranos. But then, luckily, there's Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. According to a story in the Boston Herald

[Peter] Smith was working as a freelance photographer for the Boston archdiocese’s weekly newspaper at a special Mass for lawyers Sunday when a Herald reporter asked the justice how he responds to critics who might question his impartiality as a judge given his public worship.

“The judge paused for a second, then looked directly into my lens and said, ‘To my critics, I say, ‘Vaffanculo,’ ” punctuating the comment by flicking his right hand out from under his chin, Smith said.

Yesterday, Herald reporter Laurel J. Sweet agreed with Smith’s account, but said she did not hear Scalia utter the obscenity.

Smith was fired by the Archdiocese for releasing the picture, but he retains his teaching position at B.U.

Scalia sent a letter to the Herald giving his side of the story. He describes a different gesture and a different meaning:

I responded, jocularly, with a gesture that consisted of fanning the fingers of my right hand under my chin. Seeing that she did not understand, I said “That’s Sicilian,” and explained its meaning - which was that I could not care less.

He quotes from Luigi Barzini's The Italians to support his view of the gesture's meaning:

“The extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin means: ‘I couldn’t care less. It’s no business of mine. Count me out.’ This is the gesture made in 1860 by the grandfather of Signor O.O. of Messina as an answer to Garibaldi. The general, who had conquered Sicily with his volunteers and was moving on to the mainland, had seen him, a robust youth at the time, dozing on a little stone wall, in the shadow of a carob tree, along a country lane. He reined in his horse and asked him: ‘Young man, will you not join us in our fight to free our brothers in Southern Italy from the bloody tyranny of the Bourbon kings? How can you sleep when your country needs you? Awake and to arms!’ The young man silently made the gesture. Garibaldi spurred his horse on.” (Page 63.)

But the reporter and the photographer seem to be describing a different gesture, and the published photograph seems to support their description.

In a later article, the Herald asked the cast of The Sopranos to act as language consultants:

“It’s an obscenity,” Joseph Gannascoli, who plays capo Vito Spatafore on the HBO drama “The Sopranos,” said of Scalia’s gesture, which involved flicking his hand under his chin. ...

“It’s not like grabbing your crotch, not that bad an obscenity,” Gannascoli said. “But it’s an obscenity. It’s something you would do after paying a bookie, to your bookie, but not something you would do in church.”

Though the Herald's headline was ‘Sopranos’ stars divided on bawdy body language, in fact the stars quoted seem pretty much in agreement that the gesture is highly disrepectful but not the worst possible gestural obscenity:

“It’s not that bad, but I wouldn’t do it to my mother. No way. Would I do it in church? These days, maybe. It depends if the priest was giving me the hairy eyeball,” said Stoneham native John Fiore, who played Sopranos capo Gigi Cestone.

Fiore did applaud the outspoken jurist for his animated honesty.

“I like when people are casual like that,” Fiore said. “Everything is too appropriate these days.”

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Alfred Lubrano asked around in South Philly, and got various answers:

"The gesture means, 'I don't care, fuhgeddaboutit,' " said Joe "Bubbles" Scavola, 70, a longtime employee at Esposito's.


Sonny D'Angelo of D'Angelo Brothers butcher shop said: "My father would go berserk if I used that gesture." To his family's way of thinking, the gesture is obscene. "Really, I've never done that," he said. "And I'm fluent in all the Italian curses."

The Wikipedia article on gesture has been updated to include a section titled "Flipping the fingers out from under the chin", which references the Scalia incident, assuming that the gesture was the chin flick that the reporter and the photographer described, and supporting the view that the meaning corresponds to the obscenity that the photographer reports hearing. That expression -- spelled as "vaffanculo" -- is said to represent a fluent pronuncation of "va a fare in culo", meaning "go take it in the ass".

Leaving aside the contested verbal obscenity, there are at least three gesture-related questions here. First, which gesture did Associate Justice Scalia actually make? Was it "flipping the fingers out from under the chin", or "the extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin"? Second, what are the conventional meanings (and degrees of obscenity or taboo qualities) of these various gestures in Sicilian (or more general Italian) culture? Third, what did Scalia intend the gesture to mean as he made it?

A possible geographical and historical account of differences of opinion about the gesture's meaning is supplied by this May 2004 entry in Google Answers:

Q: Could someone please explain what this hand gesture means? This guy did this hand gesture to a group of my friends and myself the other day - he had his hand underneath his chin (fingers underneath his chin, nails facing up) and was moving or "flicking" his fingers hitting underneath his chin on his neck. He did this quite often and found it rather amusing as did his friends. Just curious what him and his friends meant by this.

A: Here is the most comprehensive explanation I've found: "The Chin Flick gesture, in which the backs of the fingers are swept upwards and forwards against the underside of the chin, is an insulting action in both France and northern Italy. There it means 'Get lost-you are annoying me.' In southern Italy it also has a negative meaning, but the message it carries is no longer insulting. It now says simply 'There is nothing' or 'No' or 'I cannot' or 'I don't want any'. This switch takes place between Rome and Naples and gives rise to the intriguing possibility that the difference is due to a surviving influence of ancient Greece. The Greeks colonized southern Italy, but stopped their northern movement between Rome and Naples. Greeks today use the Chin Flick in the same way as the southern Italians... "

Is the "flick" vs. "back and forth" also a regional difference? Or are there two different gestures, one of which means "fuck you" from Rome to the north, but "fuhgeddaboutit" from Naples to the south? If any readers know the answers to these questions (or to better and more precisely posed questions), please let me know and I'll post them.

[A non-linguistic point: This all started because a reporter for the Herald, Laurel J. Sweet, "asked the justice how he responds to critics who might question his impartiality as a judge given his public worship". That's how the question is described in a Herald article by Marie Szaniszlo, and put that way, it seems remarkably offensive. The question seems to assume that the impartiality of any judge who attends any religious service is in doubt. I find it shocking to think that an American reporter finds that plausible enough to ask about it.

Of course, Sweet might just have been trying to get a rise out of Scalia -- and after all, she succeeded. Or perhaps this description of the question is misleading. But Sweet's own original article refers to "those who question his impartiality when it comes to matters of church and state ... for publicly celebrating his conservative Roman Catholic beliefs". Given what this leads me to think the question must have been, I'm not surprised that Scalia was reduced to some wordless -- or at least non-English -- expression of rejection.

After all, as the McCormick Tribune Freedom museum wants us to remember:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...

Of course, it doesn't say that the press shall make no assumptions in these areas. But still, it seems truly bizarre to question whether a judge's participation in public worship is proper.]

[Update: some expert opinion about the meaning of the "chin flick" is here. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 5, 2006 12:08 AM