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Dialect Proverbs
Hands off the female sex! Sciuquéme e ppazziéme
ma la tabbacchére ne nla tuqquéme

[We play and joke
but the snuff-box we don’t touch]
(Northern Puglia)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

This proverb needs some explaining, especially for younger readers. The snuff box was a container carried in the pocket holding sniffing tobacco, or snuff. In an age that was mad about tobacco – in all social classes, though naturally, the quality of tobacco varied greatly – the word therefore conjures up the image of a little box with pleasurable contents. Hence the metaphorical step to a ‘female genital organ’ (helped by the fact that the enjoyment of tobacco was typically and exclusively male). The proverb therefore says that the amorous effusions of young lovers must go no further than what was once called ‘petting’.

The concept is also expressed – more crudely – in another proverb, from the area of Foggia: “Pìzzeche e vvase non fàscene pertuse” (Pinches and kisses make no holes), which in the Salentine version becomes even more explicit: “Pizzichi e vvasi nu ffannu pertusi, manu ca lluscia nu fface criaturi” (Pinches and kisses make no holes, the hand that caresses makes no babies). It looks like the same proverb but between the three versions there is a significant difference. The first has an ethical sense (pleasure has its limit in morality), the second implies a social consideration (risking the loss of virginity can cause serious damage to the girl’s image in society), the third seems to pose the problem of contraception (if you confine yourself to kisses and cuddles you don’t run the risk of pregnancy).

These three presentations of the same proverb are a faithful reflection of the many faces of proverbs, or rather, of the ethics of proverbs: of the Apulian proverbs because they are the ones we are examining, but in actual fact of all those that circulate, or used to circulate, in Italy.

The ‘respect for the snuff-box’ is firmly anchored to the narrow-minded version of the Catholic moral code, which in the 1800s and 1900s was stricter and more prudish than today: until halfway through the last century virginity was considered a value in itself, with the power of giving a woman the image of angel or devil, and women were led to experience sexual relations with a mixture of guilt, fear, renunciation, frustration and loss of self-esteem, in line with the wholly male chauvinist attitude of the time. The female sexual organ was the symbol of evil.

This rigid moral code gave rise to the central role played by social control, which had its fundamental tool in gossip and its guiding principle in the set of precepts inculcated by education and by ‘common opinion’. Proverbs had the job of confirming and spreading these precepts. And so we find the concern that amorous effusions should not lead to the dreaded ‘pertugio’/hole, which: a) would have violated one of the cornerstones of morality; b) would have been seriously harmful to the maiden’s reputation.

But proverbs also sprung from everyday life, from basic problems: hunger, thirst, labor, mouths to feed. And at times it happened that they spoke a different language from that of the curate or the bigot. So, in the Salentine variation, the main concern is not of an ethical kind, but is the worry about an unwanted pregnancy, which would bring a new mouth to feed. Essentially, the prohibition, though confirmed, has a very secular motivation, and is accompanied by explicit tolerance – even encouragement – of amorous activities that are risk-free.

Three variations of the same proverb, three partly different viewpoints on morality, society, and existence, coexisted with absolutely no conflict. Perhaps it is here, in the capacity to reflect the multiplicity and the infinite contradictions in life, that lies most of the charm of the proverbs from our grandparents’ time.

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