Final Word

The ‘long drop’ of SA’s political language

Lonng drop.jpg

The choice of language lately by some of South Africa’s politicians is keeping us quite busy trying to determine what they really mean. This week it is a stinking story.

Last week it was the epithet ‘hooligan’ used for those members of the opposition disrupting the proceedings in parliament during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) that occupied our minds.

This week it was none other than Speaker Baleka Mbete of the National Assembly and responsible for keeping proceedings in the House orderly and at a civil level, who called the leader of one of the opposition parties a “cockroach”.

The name of these creepy insects that come out of our modern drains and find their way to our kitchen cupboards, in recent history came to sociopolitical prominence with its use during the genocide in Rwanda. Ironically, that genocide took place in 1994 at the time when South Africans were taking part in their first-ever fully democratic elections.

The first known recording in writing of ‘cockroaches’ as a name for these insects came in the year 1624 in a book by Captain John Smith, the British explorer/adventurer involved in the establishment of the British colony of Virginia, now one of the states of the United States.

It was probably transference of the Spanish name ‘cucaracha’ (for the woodlouse) to insects Smith and his men found on the Islands of Bermuda. It is speculated that the Spanish name was changed to ‘cockroach’ by folk etymology.

If one digs back a bit further it becomes clear that the roots really, and literally, come ‘from the pits’ as in pit latrine or in slang, the ‘long drop’.

A clue to this association is to be found in Smith’s choice of words when he wrote: "Musketas and Flies are also too busie, with a certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung."

It turns out that the word ‘cuca’, which became ‘caca’, was Latin for excrement. Not only will our Afrikaans readers now know where the less polite Afrikaans word for that bodily waste comes from, but the word survived in a number of European languages as ‘caca’ – used as a euphemism for excrement in baby talk.

Strengthening this association is the fact that the first Spanish use of the word ‘cuca’ was to describe a common kind of moth caterpillar, probably after the shape of what was dropping down pit latrines.  

The ‘cock-’ (as in rooster) part of the modern name was probably influenced by the fact that those first ‘cacarootches’ that Smith and his men encountered were of the flying kind.

Against this background it is small wonder that ‘political speak’ often is described with that impolite Afrikaans word or its English equivalent starting with a ‘s’.

by Piet Coetzer

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