Pope drops F-bomb? NOPE.

English language headlines are claiming, as fact, that “Pope Francis dropped the F-bomb” during his Angelus address this past Sunday (2 March 2014). Anglophone publications on both sides of the Atlantic, from The Washington Post and USA Today (USA) to The Herald and The Independent (UK) are reporting this story. As expected, this is making a bigger sensation in the English-speaking world than in Italy itself, where people heard the Pope’s remarks in their original language. I myself watched footage of this Angelus on the same day, and I didn’t even notice the slip until later in the day when the English-language headlines flooded the internet.

Commenting on Matthew 6:26, 28-29 (from the Gospel of that Sunday Mass), the Pope said:

E così la Provvidenza di Dio passa attraverso il nostro servizio agli altri, il nostro condividere con gli altri. Se ognuno di noi non accumula ricchezze soltanto per sé ma le mette al servizio degli altri, in questo caso la Provvidenza di Dio si rende visibile in questo gesto di solidarietà.

In this way, the providence of God passes through our service to others, through our sharing with others. If each one of us does not accumulate riches in themselves but places them in service to others, in this case God’s providence is rendered visible in this act of solidarity.

Instead of the Italian word in bold, “caso”, the Pope accidentally said “cazzo”. Of course, he quickly noticed his mispronunciation, corrected his mistake, and continued his message. Now “cazzo” is indeed a vulgar term with a plethora of possible meanings in Italian, the primary of which is not the English “F-bomb”.

Firstly and most commonly, the word is slang for male genitalia. Secondly, the word is used in the idiomatic form “che cazzo”, which corresponds to the English “what the ____”, where the blank can stand for the “hell”, “devil”, or the F-word. Third, the word can be used by itself as an interjection: “damn!”, “s–t”, “f–k”, and many other terms. Lastly, a derivative form, “cazzata”, is a noun denoting “foolishness”, “B.S.”, or something stupid.

One can see the plethora of possible translations for this word. For so many “news” outlets to single out one particular possible translation (i.e., the most vulgar possible translation) out of many others certainly reveals the modern media’s proclivity to manipulate and twist coverage in order to gain more viewers and higher ratings. On another level, it betrays the increasing deficit of culture among English-speaking (especially American) people. This story brings to light the widespread tendency, especially in the media and popular culture, to impose Anglophone idosyncrasies on the interpretation of international events. This is, of course, a fundamental error when attempting to engage other cultures: it’s an inherently condescending approach having as its source a mindset of deep-seated intolerance.

If one takes the time to read some of these English-language articles, they will adopt a slightly more measured tone, mentioning the many possible translations of the word in question. This did not, however, stop these publications from saying “Pope drops F-bomb” as the headline. The fact that the English F-word actually has an Italian cognate derived the same Latin root is completely lost in this discussion. This Italian word and its Latin origin have the same usage in English, including both its reference to sexual activity and as a general profanity, and is the closest direct transliteration, not “cazzo”. But for the modern media, accuracy and linguistic nuances be damned! In an era when people only read headlines or get their “news” from Imgur and Buzzfeed, “cazzo” = “f–k” because the media said so– end of question.

One must also remember that the Italians (and much of Europe) does not share America’s Puritan heritage. Vulgar words are not bleeped on the radio nor edited on television. Accordingly, certain vulgar words in European languages, while inappropriate in polite society, still do not have the force or shock value of certain profane words in American English. Even our British brethren are less shocked when hearing certain colorful terms, though they will tell you if such usage is appropriate for a given context.

It’s sad that a simple slip of the tongue overtakes the attention even of Catholics, whereas the Pope’s exhortations to go to Confession, to abjure sin, to give up the radical pursuit of wealth, to pray for martyred Christians in the modern world, to pray for an end to the crisis in Ukraine, and to follow the Cross of Christ all fall by the wayside. When at the end of this Lenten season we renew that Baptismal promise to “reject the glamor of evil”, will we be able to make that promise in truth, or will we remain transfixed by an accidental vulgar term, oblivious to the other wise sentiments which surround it?

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