March 16, 2008

The terrifying power of language

Arnold reminded us here of how the Piranha Brothers learned to blackmail with conditionals. But my all-time second favorite enucleation of the terrifying power of language comes only later in the same sketch. (Number one, also Monty Python of course, centers on the deadly German joke Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! ... Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput. Number three, beloved by all geeks, linguists, and thus, a fortiori, linguist geeks, is Adams' Babel Fish, "which by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." But I digress.)

For in the years after the Pirhanas' discovery of blackmail by conditionals, and while Dinsdale perfected new extremes of physical violence, Doug Piranha took a tack that was at once more fearsome, and yet more pragmatic:

Vercotti [...] one night Dinsdale walked in with a couple of big lads, one of whom was carrying a tactical nuclear missile. They said I'd bought one of their fruit machines and would I pay for it.
Interviewer  How much did they want?
Vercotti Three quarters of a million pounds. Then they went out.
Interviewer Why didn't you call the police?
Vercotti Well I had noticed that the lad with the thermo-nuclear device was the Chief Constable for the area. Anyway a week later they came back, said that the cheque had bounced and that I had to see Doug.
Interviewer Doug?
Vercotti Doug (takes a drink) I was terrified of him. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I've seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug.
Interviewer What did he do?
Vercotti He used sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire.
Presenter (voice over) By a combination of violence and sarcasm, the Piranha brothers by February 1966 controlled London and the South East. In February, though, Dinsdale made a big mistake.

So, the brothers' early failed attempt at intimidation "they selected another victim and threatened not to beat him up if he didn't pay them", as discussed by Arnold, prefigured the terrible acts of litotes that followed.

The original scene (enough material for an entire pragmatics course) follows, in two parts. The snippet above is at 2'50s in the second clip.


Posted by David Beaver at March 16, 2008 10:55 AM