Teri... Well, I won’t ask this family newspaper to reprint the Punjabi insult which, it was belatedly suggested, was really the one used by Harbhajan Singh in that infamous Sydney Test. But frankly, teri... my aunt Fanny; which, if you didn’t know, is perfectly printable British slang for nonsense. The Punjabi phrase shouldn’t be heard even on a cricket field. But I don’t for a second believe it was. If he’d used it, Harbhajan would have promptly cited it — in bowdlerized translation, no doubt — to the match referee’s inquiry, and it would have been all over the media next morning. Which it wasn’t.
A likely tale — a phrase that means just the opposite of what it says. About as likely as my rival explanation: that Harbhajan had been taking French lessons off-field, and what he really said was manqué, one of whose English meanings is missed. Whether a ball had missed the wicket or a fielder the ball, I leave to your imagination and the diplomats of Indo-Australian cricket.
How much does it matter? Damn all, I’d say, or sweet Fanny Adams; a lady not quite as respectable as my aunt above, though it’s her initials, whose implication also I won’t sully The Telegraph with, that cast a shadow, not her unhappy real-world history.
Get the context right
No, as I wrote at the time, one can’t take too tragically what a young cricketer says in the heat of a hard-fought match. And we have Shane Warne’s word, in a recent column, that “sledging is a legitimate weapon, as long as it doesn’t become abusive” (abusive? Punjabi to an Australian?) and one that he “found extremely effective” against insecure batsmen. To me, this lessens that great bowler’s greatness: how many of his wickets were due not to his wrist and fingers but his tongue? But cricket is his business, not mine.
Back to mine. My point, and I grant it needs making by now, is that using a language is one thing and using it idiomatically a far harder and riskier one. Especially, the idiom of insult, slang or bad(-dish) language. Context is all. There are, in English as in Punjabi, phrases that men use among themselves but never in a woman’s presence, let alone to her. That is, there were: the ‘context’ changes from decade to decade, among speakers of one kind or place and those of others, among old men and boys (or girls), speakers and writers, novel-writers and scriptwriters.
I was once at a Buenos Aires football match, where one team’s fans sang loudly of the other’s as hijos de puta, sons of a lady of easy virtue (note how, in the context of The Telegraph, I slip into euphemism). Used thus, the insult was OK; outside the ground, between individuals, it could have earned a knife in the ribs.
And a little knowledge is a dangerous guide. There is (or was?) an Italian phrase — porca miseria! — an exclamation of dismay. It sounds harmless. But it’s toned down from a wording that links the Virgin Mary with a sow. In what I thought were my Italian-speaking days, I once used the mild version as I talked to a Pisa policewoman. I swiftly learned that even it, in that context, was a no-no.
Moral: if you want to express disbelief, a man of my nationality, age, class and upbringing could offer you a dozen phrases ranging from really? via oh yeah? through my harmless aunt Fanny to words that were once unprintable. But just which would be acceptable today, or even understood, among which listeners, where, I can’t say. As with jokes, the wise rule is: unless you’re wholly sure of what you’re saying, and to whom, don’t.