Los Inocentes

Joachim Dobler/Flickr
Joachim Dobler/Flickr

The Spanish say dos por dos, two by two, just as we do in English, but they say blanco y negro, reversing our “black and white.” They get some other things the wrong way round too. Pie a cabeza is their backwards rendition of “head to toe,” peras y manzanas is literally “pears and apples” instead of our “apples and oranges,” and tarde o temprano is an inverse of “sooner or later.” They also say vivo o muerto, our “dead or alive.” Other expressions or even customs are not backwards but simply mixed up, according to my notions of how things should be. Take April 1, the English-speaking world’s day of practical jokes. The Spanish like pranks, too, but the day they set aside for them is December 28, which happens to be el día de los Santos Inocentes, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, an annual remembrance of all the male children under the age of two who were massacred on that date by order of King Herod.

Why the 28th? As well as meaning innocent, inocente means gullible, which is what you are if you fall for the jokes. Not much of a reason, I should think, for turning a day of solemn commemoration into one of silly pranks. Because what, with the children in mind, is there to joke about? Forget I asked—I’d just as soon not know.

What else is off? Martes y trece means Tuesday 13, the day of bad luck in Spain, like our Friday the 13th. In an allusion to that day, Martes y Trece was a Spanish comedy team I first became aware of in the late ’80s, during an end-of-the-year TV skit. The team had started in 1978 as a trio, but by the time I saw them, they were a duo, Josema Yuste and Millán Salcedo. Their last appearance, also a year’s end special, was titled “Adiós.” Recently, when the subject of lucky or unlucky days came up in class, I remembered and mentioned the team. The name meant something to one of the three students. But he had nothing to say about the comedians. The other two students scratched their heads.

“Cat got your tongue?” I might have asked. What would my students have conjured up in their mind’s eye? An absurd image of a cat dangling by its claws from someone’s bloodied tongue. In contrast, Te comió la lengua el raton?—meaning literally “Did the mouse eat your tongue?”—would not sound so absurd to their ears. Out of curiosity, I looked up the origin of the Spanish saying because, unlike with the cat having someone’s tongue, which raised no questions at all for me, the mouse nibbling away did.

What I discovered was that a common punishment in the Middle Ages was to cut out the tongue of a blasphemer or other miscreant and throw it to the cats, dogs, or mice.

Why did I ask? In my mind, the picture transformed from a comic one of a cat hanging from a giant tongue into something more like a woodcut, crude lines that nevertheless depict a scene of torture. Sometimes, it’s better not to ask. Sometimes it’s better to be innocent.

“Curiosity killed the cat” is an expression both in English and Spanish. I looked up the explanation for the jokes of December 28. To save their babies from Herod’s decree, parents had to resort to deceit. It was the soldiers, then, who were the gullible ones, the innocents, falling for the ruses. It saved a few babies, and saved some soldiers from sin, but I doubt if it did them any lasting good. Them? The babies or the soldiers? You tell me.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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