Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Arseholes, considered as a strategic entity"

The TLS's slang dictionary review sent me back to an old essay in Thumbscrew by Craig Raine, on swearing and translation, which doesn't live up at all to my memory of it. However this bit has always stuck with me:
I recall Thom Gunn asking me in San Francisco if I had really published a poem entitled ‘Arsehole’. I had. […] Gunn’s comment was a poet’s comment on two languages. “Gee, ‘arsehole’ is so much dirtier than ‘asshole’.” […] “Asshole” is a possible translation of “arsehole” but it isn’t the right translation - not only for the reason given by Thom Gunn. To call someone an “arsehole” is quite different from saying someone is an “asshole”. The former is malignant where the latter is harmless. To be on a desert island with an asshole would be irritating perhaps. To be on the same desert island with an arsehole might even be dangerous.

And, as if on cue, here's Daniel Davies on Egypt:
Basically, what you need is a large population who are a few rungs up from the bottom of society, who aren't interested in freedom and who hate young people. In other words, arseholes. Arseholes, considered as a strategic entity, have the one useful characteristic that is the only useful characteristic in the context of an Egyptian-style popular uprising - there are fucking millions of them.

(Via Yglesias, who has the linguistic tact not to translate the word.) One is inevitably reminded of the "I'm surrounded by assholes" set-piece in Spaceballs, a precisely converse situation where "arsehole" would be a mistranslation.

I wonder if anyone's bothered to study the difference between "arsehole" usage in rhotic and non-rhotic dialects -- Green's dictionary, maybe? -- there must be something, I feel, but it's hard to isolate immediately from all the other differences between Scottish and southern English speech.

Any time Thom Gunn comes up is a good time to reread "The Gas-poker."


Alan said...

Got a garse-poker I could borrow?

Sarang said...

I don't believe in putting all your No. 2 irons in the fire.