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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Jan. 2003                

Everything is related to Naples
Number 77 in this series. Link to all items here.

 
The Raspberry, Bronx Cheer, Pernacchio

I find this in an English-language morning paper:

The finding has been of particular interest, as orangutans have long been thought to be loners, leaving little possibility for creating culture. Yet researchers found that at one site all orangutans gave a Bronx cheer before going to sleep…

The part about the “Bronx cheer” drew my attention. I, for one, say “hear! hear!” to our orangutan cousins, the “oran utan” of the Asian jungles, in their strivings towards our own more advanced cultural habits. To that end, I offer this information. 

Neapolitans, like everyone else, commonly lament that things are not as good as they used to be. For one thing, water. In the old days, drinking water in Naples was a cold and pure experience, as refreshing as falling into a snowbank in Heaven. Second, bread. Convoys of panisti (breadsteaders?) still make weekend forages to the outlying areas, looking for El Doughrado, the village fabled to bake bread the old-fashioned way—in a brick oven fired by wood. Third, the topic of this brief attempt at interspecies cultural aid and the final bit of damning evidence that things ain't what they used to be: they say that there is no one left who can sound a 'pernacchio' good and true. 

The pernacchio. This unvoiced trill or buzz made by protruding the tongue between the lips and forcibly expelling air—possibly using the palm or back of the hand as an aid to increase back–pressure and, hence, amplification, is a common acoustic token (hereafter referred to as a 'sound') of disapproval, contempt, derision, disapprobation, odium, dislike, dissent, disdain, scorn or contumely. In some parts of the United States it is called 'a Bronx cheer'. The general English term, however, is 'raspberry' and it is one of the few examples of so-called Cockney Rhyming Slang to find its way into common use throughout the English speaking world. The complete phrase is 'raspberry tart,' a rhyme with the common English term, now considered vulgar, for the sound produced by flatulence and which the 'raspberry' is said to be in imitation of. It has also given us the slang verb 'to razz,' meaning 'to make fun of'. 

The proper Italian term is 'pernacchi-a,' from the Latin vernacula (servant or slave), thus, a sound that presumably only a lowly person would make. The pernacchia is said to have enjoyed its Golden Age in the early 20th century in Naples. Indeed, in Neapolitan, the prevalent term is 'pernacchi-o,' the -o suffix indicating masculine grammatical gender. It is a common misconception, perpetuated by misguided lexicographers that the masculine form is simply a dialect variation and the two forms are interchangeable. The following passage [my translation] from a delightful book of tales entitled L'Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples) by Giuseppe Marotta will show that this is not the case: 

The 'pernacchio' is not the 'pernacchia'. The former can be strong or weak, long or short, massive or frail, aquiline or snub; but it is always masculine, always constructive and diligent, always on the job. The latter is soft and indolent; puffy, white and reclining like a harem concubine on a carpet. Suffice it to say that don Pasquale resorted to the feminine version of the gesture only for trivial matters; for example, in answer to a summons to pay his rent or bills, or when a client would point out to him that the handle on one of the riding crops which don Pasquale handcrafted had not been turned quite properly, and don Pasquale simply hadn't the energy to answer with a curt, "There's nothing more I can do with it."

In another passage, the author describes the varieties of pernacchio that only the dedicated Neapolitan raspberry virtuoso is capable of producing: 

Their infinite range, their register and modulationsDon Pasquale Esposito had them all! The violent quake of the 'breast pernacchio,' renting the air and hurling itself out over land and sea; but he also had the subtle nuances of the 'head pernacchio,' which one could describe the way one does the song of a nightingale...There was a three-note theme... and then go on for two more pages; furthermore, he had both an affirmative and negative pernacchio, a tragic and a comic one; with only his lips he could send forth an inward and lyrical, remote, dense sound, freeing his pent-up emotions like a torrent; he could declare with his pernacchio, and he could allude; he could sum up, and he could go into minute detail; he had nouns and adjectives; his was the pernacchio of genius.

(The film version of L'Oro di Napoli presents the above paragraph in a scene that is now part and parcel of Neapolitan popular culture. The great actor/playwright, Eduardo De Filippo, demonstrates the "infinite range, register and modulations" of the true pernacchio for his neighborhood friends. It is said that you know nothing about the pernacchio until you have seen that film! (On the film posterphoto, aboveEduardo is shown using the classic hand position for the proper rendering of the pernacchio.)

The pernacchio is an archetypal expression of contempt at being beaten up by the world, and in Naples a person's measure of worth is the ability to hurl it even in the face of the Ultimate Indignity. Again, L'Oro di Napoli

It is worth commenting upon the final moments of Don Pasquale. Thinking that it would be difficult to feel the pulse or heartbeat through all the fat, the doctor held a small mirror up to the mouth of the dying man. Don Pasquale's breath fogged the glass with strange and vague marks, small puffed circles crossed by lines and mysterious markings. They weren't accidental signs; they were symbols, a message, parts of a puzzle. The faithful in attendance—those who believed in signs and could decipher them—knew what they were witnessing: Don Pasquale, always a person of few words, and now burdened by impending death, was availing himself of his last breath to blow one last formidable, supreme pernacchio at this life, which was now abandoning him.

In spite of the perception that the real pernacchio is dead or dying, the word is out that a champion has come forth, a pretender to the long vacant throne of don Pasquale Esposito in the examples cited above. He is known simply as the Pernacchionethe Great Phantom Raspberry Blower. Residents of the area of Naples called Port' Alba speak of him in whispered awe, the way peasants used to talk of King Arthur or Robin Hood—or the way we used to recite The Highwayman around a campfire: "And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees/ And the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon stormy seas…"

He is said to appear whenever the downtrodden and oppressed are in need of venting their displeasure. Maybe you've been in the world's longest queue at the post-office for two hours, ulcerating and grumbling at the overpaid slow-motion dolts up there behind the counter who are the source of all your torment, when suddenly it is upon you—Pzzzzzzztttttt! a great rip-roaring engine of vengeance, a sibilant and clarion wail of outrage sounding and resounding off the high vaulted marble arches of bureaucratic arrogance! A Pzzzzzzztttttt! as heroic and Homeric as the laughter that bursts the bonds of Tyranny—and you turn and he has gone, without even waiting for a thank-you, without even leaving a silver bullet. But he'll be back. Once more there is hope. He's everywhere. He's everywhere. 

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