In this second edition of his quiz series, Pissed-off Toff offers a life-changing twenty-pound note, posted first class, in return for the answer (if it exists) to an interesting question.
Whenever I go shopping at Waitrose, I feel nothing but admiration for the patience and good humour of the people who serve me.
Shortly after I left Oxford in the mid-1980s with no idea as to what I wanted to do with my life, I worked as a shop assistant for a year, and it almost did me in. The boredom, the drudgery, the utter lack of any sort of interest. And the salary, if that is the word for it … just enough to pay for renting a room in Stockwell, with a small pittance thrown in for food. This was modern slavery.
If that had been all that I had ever known, it might perhaps have been tolerable. But compared to my gilded youth, compared to my time at school and university, and to holidays in France and Italy and with cousins in stately homes in Ireland … well, I hardly knew what had hit me.
It was, thus, something of an upgrade to work, for fifteen years or so, as a translator.
Translating is rather like ironing shirts. By which I mean, when you have a pile of shirts to iron, each one has to be ironed separately. You can perfect your routine, but there’s no getting away from the fact that each shirt will take a certain amount of time.
Thus with translation. You have a text of – say – 50,000 words in the source language (in other words, the language from which the text is to be translated). Each thousand words will on average take a certain amount of time to be done, with inevitable delays and difficulties on the way. It’s tiring and demanding, but not without interest … and preferable, in every way, to working as a checkout assistant in a supermarket.
Which brings us to the point of this quiz:
The other day, when translating a book about Parma ham from Italian into English, I came across the following expression: Chiedere all’oste se il vino è buono. What this means, literally, is: to ask the innkeeper if the wine – i.e. the wine he wishes to sell to you, a customer sitting at his table – is all right.
I should, first of all, explain to my numerous readers that in linguistic terms, this is what is known as a ‘locution’. That is to say, it is an accepted assemblage of words, a pre-fabricated expression, an idiom. Like, for example, ‘mad as a hatter’ or ‘it takes one to know one’ or ‘drinks like a fish’ or ‘drunk as a lord’.
It is an old-fashioned expression, from the north of Italy, dating from the times when inn-keepers existed. But the import of it is obvious. I am a weary traveller. I turn up at an inn. I want wine. But I fancy that I won’t be had for a fool. So I shrewdly ask the innkeeper whether he would advise me to drink the wine which he wishes to sell to me. And in so doing, I ask the right, entirely understandable question, of precisely the wrong person. Because the innkeeper is the very last person who will tell me, objectively speaking, whether the wine he is offering is OK.
What, then, is the English equivalent of this locution?
“To ask a dumb question”? (Although I don’t think that this even qualifies as a locution.) No. The question is not dumb. It’s just dumb to address it to a certain person. I did come up with other candidates, but I can’t remember them now; and I’ve been racking my brains ever since.
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So. The first reader who can provide me with a bona fide English locution (by which I mean an established and accepted assemblage of words) which is the equivalent to “chiedere all’oste se il vino è buono” will get the said life-changing twenty-pound note, posted first class in a nice thick envelope, hand-made by myself.
Why £20, you ask, when the prize for my first quiz was £10? The reason is that no-one managed to answer the first quiz correctly.
Accompanied by a photo, the question was: What was this house in London called and what purpose did it serve?
Answer: It was called Ma Feathers, and it was a brothel for the upper classes. I know, because my father told me. It was opposite where he lived when he was an officer in the Grenadier Guards and one of the best-looking men in London.
In the absence of the correct answer, I kept my tenner, which rolls over to the current quiz, now with a cash prize of £20 … sent, as I say, by first class post in an envelope made by myself.