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Thinly veiled fagging cant from Bergamo

By Domenico Pacitti

The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds: 17th and 18th Century Canting Lexicography in England by Maurizio Gotti. Published in 1999 by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 159 pages, £30, ISBN: 3 484 30994 6.

Maurizio Gotti has succeeded in supplying a thinly veiled recipe for students and others in mainstream Italian academia. For he has shown them how to produce a book that will ensure them some degree of prestige despite suffering from the dual handicap of being unable to write and having nothing to say. Obviously this degenerate and typically Italian form of “bookmaking”, as it is known in the trade, cannot be expected to reflect Mr Gotti’s conscious objective.

Rather, Mr Gotti is concerned with English jargon known as “cant” as it appears in old dictionaries and glossaries (alphabetically ordered lists of words with definitions). He attempts to summarise the aim of his work in an ominous opening sentence which at the same time illustrates his inability to write comprehensibly:

“The volume analyses the main dictionaries and glossaries of the particular jargon spoken by thieves and vagabonds that appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

So what is it that appeared in those two centuries? The main dictionaries and glossaries? The jargon? The thieves and vagabonds? Or some combination of these? Gotti’s ambiguous sentence fails to specify which. Moreover, “analyse” turns out to be the wrong word since the book is, as we shall see, distinctly expository rather than analytic.

The rudiments of the Gotti bookmaking technique may already be observed in the first chapter, where Gotti takes himself to be carrying out an “analysis” of the English underworld. What he actually does is to cram into the chapter’s eleven pages a barrage of lengthy quotes from no less than eighteen, mainly standard sources, letting them tell the story as it were. With these quotes occupying well over half the chapter, deduct the Gotti paraphrase and you are left with practically nothing. Gotti’s substantive writing is limited to applauding each of his sources in turn for being right.

Gotti’s residual problem now consists in avoiding repetition of the word “says”. This he resolves by alternating “asserts”, “points out”, “confirms”, "remarks”, “writes”, “describes”, etc., a task requiring no more than a dictionary of synonyms or a cooperative native English speaker from the language centre which Gotti runs at the University of Bergamo.

Students should take note that heavy first-chapter quoting also allows Gotti to get off to a racing start in building up back matter (bibliography, index and appendices), by which academics – and not only in Italy – often superficially judge a book’s worth.

It should already be fairly obvious that the bookmaking model makes life easier for everyone and defends the author against possible academic criticism. The basic idea is that if you do not really say anything, then there is nothing really to discuss.

Chapter 2 deals similarly with early canting literature while each of the following eight is devoted to a different dictionary or glossary. Roughly the same methods are used, but with long lists of words now performing the space-filling function of quotations to the point of overspilling into nine appendices, again adding more of the desired back matter.

At one point Gotti cites the interesting word “fagger” from Francis Grose’s dictionary:

fagger (‘a little boy put in at a window to rob the house’, from the verb to fag ‘to act as a servant to one of a superior’)” (p.111),

which Italian academic bag-carriers would be well familiar with in the latter meaning. Disappointingly, Gotti misses the obvious opportunity to say something about semantic connections with “fag” (cigarette) and “to fag” (to exhaust). But perhaps this falls beyond the scope of his book, his knowledge of English or both.

It is worth pointing out that, notwithstanding the book’s substandard English, Mr Gotti falls well within the singular Italian tradition of academics who are somehow able to write English with strikingly more skill than one might ever suspect on actually hearing them speak it. This evidently explains why no one is expressly thanked in the book’s acknowledgements for correcting, translating or writing Gotti’s English for him.

Gotti ends most of his chapters with short conclusions which spotlight his intellectual shallowness and lack of originality. These conclusions, unhampered as they are by the crutches of copious quotations and endless lists, also prove pivotal in revealing how little Gotti has to say when writing “on the loose”.

Take, for example, the central point in Gotti’s conclusion to chapter 3 on the new canting terms which were reported by Richard Head:

“The analysis carried out so far has thus highlighted Richard Head’s important contribution to the careful recording of those canting terms which were used in England in the middle of the seventeenth century. Head’s great merit is to have compiled his dictionary not merely deriving his terms from previous publications, but adopting all those expressions which were employed at his time by the English underworld and providing them with appropriate standard equivalents.” (p.48)

Here Gotti again crucially misuses the word “analysis”. His similar misuse of the expression “a careful analysis shows” just ten lines later further reinforces suspicion of Gotti’s insistent attempt to convince the reader, and perhaps also himself, that his work is prestigiously analytic rather than merely expository. Notice how little Gotti is in fact saying here. He makes much out of praising Head. For what? For having incorporated some of the cant of his day into a dictionary largely copied from earlier dictionaries. This same Gotti formula recurs stubbornly and monotonously in his other end-of-chapter conclusions.

So why does Gotti speak of Head's “great merit” and, 15 lines later, of his “precious work”? The answer is that what counts in Italian academic bookmaking is the superficial, formal impression that something profound and incisive is being said. What counts is the impression that the author is somehow in intellectual harmony with a worthy subject whom he is capable of evaluating. What counts is the creation of useless research projects to be undertaken by third-rate academics in order to obtain the necessary government funding to keep self-exalting egos and mercenary publishers satisfied.

It would be interesting to explore the extent to which Gotti and colleagues are aware of all of this and the extent to which they have convinced themselves that they really are being analytic, profound and incisive.

We might ask to what extent academic colleagues working in the same field at foreign universities consciously help prop up and reinforce this false impression. To what extent are they motivated by feelings of human pity, brotherly protection or being part of the same team? Or by the prospect of advantageous inclusion in Italian-run international research projects? Or by the prospect of a summer holiday or two in Italy? To what extent are the foreign counterparts of people like Gotti working at the same sort of level of mediocrity? And how aware of all of this are Italian institutions providing the research funding?

Meanwhile Mr Gotti has become the president of the European Confederation of University Language Centres (CERCLES), the director of a language research centre (CERLIS) based at the University of Bergamo and the editor of a series of linguistic studies for Peter Lang publishers in Bern.

I am unfamiliar with Mr Gotti’s other publications but am reliably informed that this is his best work to date. If true, it would certainly show just how far a little fagging cant can go in Italy.

Mr Gotti teaches English language and translation at the University of Bergamo's faculty of modern languages where he holds a senior post.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on January 2 2004.