In Monday's class, we were watching a few snippets from Il commissario Montalbano, including the famous, or infamous, scene generally known as La colazione del dottor Pasquano - from the 2017 episode, Un covo di vipere - in which the Sicilian term cabbasisi or cabasisi, features both prominently and hilariously - yes, we are a bunch of 14 year old teenage boys at heart! Cabbasisi or cabasisi, Wikipedia informs, derived from the arabic ḥabb ‘azīz (حَبّ عَزِيز) - multifariously translated in Italian as: bacca dolce (sweet berry); bacca rinomata (renowned berry); mandorla buona (yummy almond) - and originally referred to the small marble-sized edible tubers produced, apparently, by a plant by the botanical name of cypress esculentus, commonly known as the yellow nutsedge - in Italian, il cipero dolce.
The small edible tubers which according to one source, "are chewy and taste a little like almond and pecan", and according to another, hanno un sapore simile a quello delle noci o delle mandorle amare; and to another still: hanno un sapore dolce, oleoso, simile a quello delle nocciole e delle mandorle allo stesso tempo; bear a bewildering variety of names: tiger nut, in English; chufa, in Spanish; xufa, in Valencian; dolcichini, babbagigi, mandorle di terra, nocciole di terra, in Italian; bagigi, in Veneto (even though the term now seems to refer exclusively to le noccioline americane, peanuts, in English), bacicci, in Tuscan and, in sicilian, cabbasisi or cabasisi.
Apart from it's original identification with the marble-sized edible tuber, we find, in 18th Century Sicilian dictionaries, cabbasisi, or cabasisi, defined also as an interjection: Cabbasisi! Mi è cascato il telefonino nel water! ; Tiger nuts! My mobile phone has dropped in the toilet bowel! - or something to that effect.
Later still, as Rocco Luigi Nichil, relates in his wonderful article on the language of Montalbano posted on the Treccani site: la parola è poi passata ad indicare, probabilmente per via della forma (passaggio metaforico non raro in italiano come nei dialetti), gli organi genitali maschili. Liberally translated: perhaps due to its shape - some would uncharitably argue, also due to its size - cabbasisi, or cabasisi, went on to refer to the testis of the human male. A shift in meaning not uncommon in Italian, as in the dialects - as learners of Italian soon discover to their unamused bewilderment: Non mi rompere le scatole! (don't break my boxes!); Non mi rompere le barbabietole! (don't break my beetroots!). The latter doesn't exist, as yet, but you can see that there is definite potential for a metaphorical shift. Ultimately, as a non-Sicilian, cabbasisi, or cabasisi, has a funny sound to it, like one of the standard Italian words for tiger nuts: babbagigi. Oddly enough, if one says: domani vado ad Assisi; nobody laughs. Add a "cab", as if it were a prefix, to "Assisi"; say it in a ludicrous tone, and it's hugely amusing!
However, it's not about cabbasisi, or cabasisi that we want to talk about! Rather another word which I'm sure you've never heard: guallera. It's a neapolitan term, the "g" is practically silent, and it means "hernia", specifically, apparently, and, most significantly, "scrotal hernia", to be precise, which, apparently, is quite painful, impedes graceful, effortless motion, and is, possibly, debilitating. As with cabbasisi, or cabasisi, it derives from an arabic word, in this case the word for hernia: "wadara”. This morning, as I was watching Il Fatto Quotidiano's daily online news video update, I was amusingly surprised to hear the director of the online version of the paper, Peter Gomez - who happens to be a milanese - say, referring to il PD, il Partito Democratico, whose newly elected leader - following the resignation of Nicola Zingaretti, the brother of Luca Zingaretti, by the way, who plays the part of Montalbano - Enrico Letta, has suggested appointing female leaders to the various factions - yes, factions - within the party: Abbiamo rotto la (g)uallera a tutti!, that is: "we (speaking for the PD) have broken everyone's scrotal hernia by talking about bringing about, or engendering gender balance within the party since the fall of the Roman Empire (my interpretation) and it's time we put our words into action!" It was very funny!
Relying on Francesco Pipitone's excellent article published on VesuvioLive.it, (g)uallera, following, like cabbasisi, a passaggio metaforico, a "semantic or metaphorical shift" of its own, is used in neapolitan in phrases such as: abbuffà ‘a guallera, meaning "to annoy, to render tedious, to bother; a very "colorita e volgare" way to suggest that a certain person or situation has become so insufferable as to abbuffare, a neapolitan verb which means "to inflate", "gonfiare" in italian, the scrotum leading to the debilitating consequences alluded to earlier: M’hê abbuffato ‘a guallera!, that is “Mi hai scocciato”, "you've annoyed me..big time!"; or Tonino c’ha abbuffato ‘a guallera!, “Tonino ci ha scocciati”, "Tonino (Little Tony) has annoyed us...big time!; and, of course, like the standard Italian "scocciarsi " or "rompersi le...", it can be used riflexively (actually, pronominally): m’aggio abbuffatto ‘a guallera!, “Mi sono scocciato!”, I'm fed up...big time!.
Another very useful phrase involving la guallera (yes, it is feminine!) is: essere na guallera. If you are crazy enough to be driving in Naples, and the driver in front of you has a modicum of sanity, and is not intent on running over every nun, Franciscan friar, and alter boy, attempting to cross the street in Naples, you may want to shout to him or her: si na guallera!, you are a scrotal hernia and you are causing me considerable discomfort!
A further useful phrase is: che guallera! While you are waiting in line at the Uffizi Gallery, you can look at the unfortunate person beside you, blow out your cheeks, perform a flapping motion with your hands in proximity to the groin area (see Alma Editore video below) and say: Che guallera!; "Che seccatura!" or "Che palle!”, in Italian; What a pain! If you keep repeating it, accompanied by the appropriate gesture, in a very loud voice, you'll find that the line will dissipate quite quickly! For inspiration watch a Nanni Moretti film.
You're probably wondering: "How do I pronounce these?". True. You could come to class of course, and ask your teacher. Giorgia will jump at the opportunity, and add a few milanese ones of her own. Martina will most probably blush and be too embarassed to help you, even though, I'm certain, there are some wonderful equivalent expressions in bergamasco! Giacomo? just ignore him! In truth, these expressions are a lot of fun but best not to attempt to use them unless you are in the company of very good friends equipped with a good sense of humour. Also, be aware that, if you manage to use one of the above expressions in an intelligible manner, at the appropriate moment, in the appropriate circumstance, your good neapolitan friends will not only laugh their heads off, but will erect a statue for you on the spot, which will be completely covered in graffiti within seconds!
During my considerable research on cabbasisi, or cabasisi, and guallera, I came across a truly wonderful video - posted in antiquity, in 2009, but still intelligible - by a youing woman called Karina, who talks about the word guallera. Please do watch it as it is truly incredibly funny! So, below, you'll find Peter Gomez's Abbiamo rotto la (g)uallera a tutti!, Karina's hilarious discussion of the word guallera, an excellent video by Alma Editore on Italian gestures - "our" gesture is at 1:19 and 3:04 - and, of course, La colazione del dottor Pasquano. Buona visione!
You'll find Karina's video in full here.
At Italia 500 we've been offering Italian courses, in Sydney, since 1995 and one of the most beautiful aspects of learning Italian is that it opens the door to a culture of unrivalled richness and diversity. In this blog we'll be sharing some of our favourite books, movies, places in Italy to visit, music, links to podcasts, information about local and international Italian themed events, and the odd "personal" view, in the hope that it will encourage you to delve further into a culture which continues to inspire us and millions of people all over the world.