Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Camilleri and the geography of insults

Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbano is not a bad driver, though his occasional preoccupation and sudden, blinding insights do sometime imperil his fellow motorists. Two such instances in The Paper Moon call forth bursts of invective that are, like Camilleri's scenery, food and dialect, reliable guides to Sicily (as always, with the aid of translator Stephen Sartarelli's informative end notes*):

He got in the car and left, but after he'd gone a hundred yards, he slapped himself on the forehead, cursed, began a dangerous U-turn, and the three motorists behind him vociferously let him know that:
One, he was a tremendous cornuto*.
Two, his mother was a woman of easy virtue.
Three, his sister was worse than his mother.
And, seventy-nine pages later:

(H)e crept along at barely five miles per hour, driving everyone who happened to be behind him crazy. Every motorist, when each managed to pass him, felt obliged to insult him. Thus, he was a(n):
faggot, according to a trucker;
asshole, according to a priest;
cornuto, according to a nice lady;
ba-ba-ba-, according to a stutterer
Sartarelli's decision to retain the Italian cornuto does much to convey the novel's local flavor. It was a laudable decision.

What memorable crime-fictional insults have you read?
* cornuto: Italian for "cuckold," cornuto is a common insult throughout the country but a special favorite among southerners, Sicilians in particular.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The range of Sicilian insults Camilleri treats us to is one of the most hilarious elements of the series. And Sartatelli has a wonderful sense of the mot juste to use in each instance. Remember, at the beginning of "Rounding the Mark," Salvo comes into the commissariato and Catarella is in a tizzy because graffiti has been painted on the facade? "Sleazeball" "murderer" and last, but not least, "goddam cuckolds" "a classic expression of so-called Sicilitude."

One of the Sicilian slang words Camarelli uses often and Sartarelli has to deal with is "minchia" (or "minchiate") and all its manifestations. Minchia is a vulgarism for penis and is used to express wonder, appreciation, contempt, and other frames of mind (transl from the glossary at It might mean anything from "holy shit" to "wow" to "fuck it," etc. etc. and Sartarelli always seems to pick the most appropriate English translation. (More in Italian at

September 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Catarella's reaction to those insults is one of the more touching I can remember.

And then, of course, Camilleri leavens the moment with some humor:

"Oh, Chief! I almost forgot. They also wrote, `Goddamn cuckolds!'"

Imagine ever finding any obscene graffiti in Sicily without the word `cuckold' in it.

And thanks for that guide to minchismo.

September 24, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


It isnt really a verbal insult but I like the line in American Tabloid when a gangster complaining about Castro's takeover of his casino says to Pete: "Castro lets goats shit on the carpets my wife picked out personally."

September 24, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I always liked (and occasionally steal) Bertie Wooster's aunt's address to him: "You foul blot on the landscape."

September 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, not an insult, but more of Ellroy's great comic schtick. I shall tell Jimmy that you're a fan if we chat at the Philadelpha library this evening.

September 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, Bertie's Aunt Agatha is a rich source of putdowns, as are the members of the Drones Club.

But one of my favorite insults, maybe the top of the list, I stole from S.J. Perelman. I used it most recently last night, though I changed the sex to reflect the femininity of my target, thus: "She is the most oppressive nudnik that ever abraded an eardrum."

September 24, 2009  
Blogger seana graham said...

So the Ellroy's tonight, is it? Well, we await reports. In fact, I'm kind of awaiting reports from all around the globe.

September 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Ellroy report is about to go up. What other reports are you waiting for? Anything from Belfast? Melborne? Afghanistan?

September 24, 2009  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, Belfast mainly. But it seems to be a pretty energetic tour, so you never know.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, he's got more than a month before Belfast. Where else is he visiting on this tour? He certainly seems to have enough zest to get through a long trip.

September 25, 2009  

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