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.
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:
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
residual problem now consists in avoiding repetition of the word
“says”. This he resolves by alternating “asserts”,
“points out”, “confirms”,
“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.
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
(‘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
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”.
example, the central point in Gotti’s conclusion to chapter 3 on
the new canting terms which were reported by Richard Head:
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
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
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?
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.
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.
Gotti teaches English language and translation at the University
of Bergamo's faculty of modern languages where he holds a senior
Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on January 2 2004.