Billy Bones

The English have a very particular sense of humor, which has long been dear to my heart. The language is simply difficult, in the sense that it’s easy to speak a little English, but because it has a much simpler verb structure than Latin languages, no gender agreement for adjectives, and no male and female nouns (not to mention cases and accents, the riches of other languages), it quickly becomes apparent that English is quick to learn and slow to master.

Although puns are considered a poor form of wit, they are in my experience unique to English, and like everything, if done well in the proper context they can be fun. Likewise other forms of wordplay, such as the classic “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

The lack of gender sensitivity makes for all sorts of fun in other languages. That’s why it’s important to know more than one language – that’s just as true in computing as in natural languages: if you know BASIC and JAVA you can compare the two, like English and French. And small countries are richer than big ones in that respect. As the Perfect Prince says in The India Road, when describing the Jewish people:

“People from a small nation are required to speak the tongues of other countries, and people of no nation must speak the languages of all.”

That quote is adapted from an observation my father made from time to time about the vast linguistic skills of the Jewish people he knew. I have largely had the same experience.

My grandmother, who understood no language other than Portuguese, was once flummoxed by an English visitor of my parents complimenting her on her cuzinho. Cu is Portuguese slang for ass (culo in Spanish and Italian), and with the inho diminutive appended it means little ass, or more usually cute ass. My avó was a very proud woman, and she took exception to a virtual stranger making comments, albeit flattering, about her rear end. The distraught guest was of course complimenting her on her cozinha, her kitchen. What a difference an a makes… (and the difference is cu).

English humor is also unscheduled, it permeates conversation. Sometimes it’s so understated it’s like a background that’s hardly noticeable, except you miss it when it’s not there. And one of the most esoteric forms is the obscure art of rhyming slang. Supposedly developed by cockneys in the XIXth century to deceive the police, it’s pretty hard for any non-native speaker to see any point in it at all.

It’s binary. You either get it or you don’t. Try explaining to someone that it makes sense to refer to your suit as “whistle and flute”, described only as your “whistle” – the rest is the rhyming bit. Or “apples” (and pears) for stairs, or “Abercrombie” (and Fitch) for bitch. I have very rarely met anyone outside Anglo-Saxon spheres that could relate to this at all. Which of course would make the English enjoy it all the more.

Billy (Bones) is of course the rhyming slang for Terry Jones, the reverend from Dove World Outreach Center. I thought it was an NGO for pigeons initially, or an amusement park with the columbine equivalent of Shamu. This is the guy who made the news for all the wrong reasons, by proposing that on  September 11th the tragedy be remembered by burning the Holy Book of Islam.

I was in New York on the first anniversary of the strike on the twin towers, at a time when the NYC airspace was cordoned off with fighter jets flying the perimeter. My mother had asked me not to go up any tall buildings while in the city. Unfortunately I had to disappoint her, because at the very least I felt I had to keep on flying in airplanes, and going up the Empire State on Sept. 11th or any other tall building whenever I damn well felt like it!

The Big Apple, September 11th 2002

You win by defending your way of life, and in the west our way of life is freedom. Burning the holy books of others, because US flags are burnt, or for any other reason, is sinking to the level of people who are not free, nations who sacrifice their own for the benefit of a few. As long as there are fanatics out there (i.e. forever), there will always be terror attacks on free nations. That’s the essence of freedom. To make those impossible can only be done by changing the free world into totalitarian states. And we have spent hundreds of years, made blood run like rivers, and lived a host of lives of torture and imprisonment for mind crimes to make the dream come true.

By letting Billy Dove do his thing, but at the same time howling in protest, from grass roots to White House lawn, the US is once again teaching a masterclass in democracy.

The best way to honor the victims of September 11th is to preserve their memory, and consign to ridicule any fool such as this prosyletizing pyrotechnic padre who defends that burning a holy book is in some way honorable. Who better to have a go at him than the real Terry Jones, one of the funniest men in post-war comedy, the director of Life Of Brian, and co-director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The other guy is just a bit of a Billy, just another cyberage flash in the pan.

Oh, and when it comes to freedom, Uncle Nelson said it best in 1964.

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.


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