Some effin' good news for Tony Soprano from the Italian Supreme Court. The fictional Italian-American mobster, and millions of law-abiding real folk in the old country, can now feel more free (not that Tony ever held back) to use the Italian "V" word that more or less corresponds with the English "F" word. Italy's top court ruled on Tuesday that "though representative of obscene concepts [and] of a sexual nature," that world-renowned 10-letter word is merely a "vulgar manifestation of irritation." The ruling overturned a verbal abuse conviction of a 60-year-old local politician in the central town of Aquila who had directed the expression at a political rival during a 1999 city council meeting.
Before exploring the reverberations of the verdict and since we know we can get away with it on an American website, even without the Court's ruling it is worth being a bit more precise: the Italian word in question is vaffanculo. Unlike the Italian high court, though, we will not deconstruct the exact significance of what is affectionately abbreviated as "vaffa" when the irritation is a bit less extreme. It is an expression that has survived in one dialect form or another down generations of Italy's millions of emigrants around the world (it is known by its Sicilian variant in the U.S. va fangul, popularized on the hit HBO series The Sopranos), alongside more wholesome words and concepts like prosciutto, mamma and amore.
The court's ruling reminds us also that all language in any language is context. NCAA basketball coach Bobby Knight once declared the "F" word the "most expressive" in the English language, which he says can communicate anger, surprise, dismay and so on. In Italy, vulgar expressions are used rather frequently on national TV (not just cable). Even before this week's ruling, comedian and activist Beppe Grillo had declared Sept. 8 "Vaffanculo Day" to organize a protest against the sclerotic political establishment. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lets vulgar expressions slip out in public about twice a year. Still, with Italy's deep Catholic roots, profanity that takes God's or Christ's name in vain is widely frowned upon, and has cost several public figures their jobs.
The court's ruling said that "such frequent use" of vaffanculo and other merely vulgar expressions has created a kind of "inflation" where they have lost their original obscene and/or overtly hostile significance, even while "impoverishing language and manners." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "obscene" speech does not enjoy First Amendment protection, and may in certain cases be criminal to express. Still, at least one of the nine U.S. justices, Sicilian-American Antonin Scalia, has some personal experience to work from. Last year when a reporter asked what he had to say to his critics, the brilliant judge responded: "I say "Vaffanculo!" If it is indeed a question of context, let the record show that Scalia had a big smile on his face and that he was at a Catholic church.