Tales of Two Sicilies 

Where the "M" Word Is Always You-Know-What

Philology: the study of written records and the determination of their meaning; also, historical and comparative linguistics. The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia's short story, "Philology," which appears in his collection The Wine-Dark Sea, begins innocently enough. One person, possibly a student, asks another, possibly a professor, "Do you think it comes from the Arabic?" The second person responds, "Very likely, my friend, very likely.... [But] this is one of the words that has given rise to more various, and more idiotic theories than most; very scholarly theories, very closely argued, but often very silly...."Not until the second page, though, does the reader realize that they're discussing the "M" word--and in Sicily the "M" word is always you-know-what. The two characters continue to talk. The possible student says of one scholar's definition of "Mafia": "He writes like an angel," while the possible professor replies, "Maybe; but not without certain illogicalities." But it's not until the fourth page that the two characters start to come into sharper focus:

"'You must watch out for, and avoid, figures of speech, sayings, proverbs. You must speak concisely, correctly, with tact and courtesy.'

"'God Almighty! D'you think I'm an educated man or something? The nearest I ever got to university was looking after sheep!'

"'If you let slip an expression like 'God Almighty' in front of the Commission....'"

And so it starts to dawn on the reader that a Mafioso at the political level ("When the Americans made me mayor in 1943....") is instructing a street-level Mafioso on how to respond to questions when he's dragged before the commission investigating the Mafia; not just instructing him but filling his head with all sorts of nonsense so that the thug, not the brightest student, will himself be confused and wind up sowing even more confusion: "And I guarantee that the moment will arrive when they won't know what's happening to them, what with history, philology, anonymous letters...." After all, he continues, "this is a country, my friend, where the left hand doesn't trust the right hand even if they both belong to the same man."

In this way Sciascia, who died in 1989 (and two of whose books have just recently been reissued by New York Review Books), ranges hilariously over the origins of the word as the politician quotes scholars and Capuchin missionaries, Arabic and Tuscan dictionaries, and discusses the Bourbons and the Garibaldi revolution before finally winding up, "Culture, my friend, is a wonderful thing."


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