Slang connotations too unfortunate to explain

I Fagiolini is a British vocal ensemble specializing in Renaissance and contemporary music. Here’s its director, Robert Hollingworth, on the name:

I Fagiolini’s name has become a modern myth, with bizarre explanations for it offered worldwide wherever I Fagiolini has performed or its recordings been reviewed. [The ellipsis here is out of reach for me.] Here is the unexpurgated truth.

By the time I Fagiolini gave its first concert in 1986, the revival in interest and period playing styles of early music was well under way. At New College, Oxford (the group’s home), early music was known as ‘beany’ music because most of the musicians that seemed to be interested in it (both amateur and professional) seemed to have an alternative lifestyle of knitted yoghurt and wholefood pullovers, living on a diet of nothing but pulses and beans. [The group has a definitely antic side.] Stuck for a name at short notice, countertenor Richard Wyn Roberts proposed ‘the beans’; Robert Hollingworth suggested translating this into Italian as the first concert involved Monteverdi [eventually the group supplied the music for John La Bouchardière’s production and film The Full Monteverdi — yes, a play on The Full Monty] and it sounded nicer like that. This worked well until I Fagiolini first went to Italy and discovered the various slang connotations it has there. We don’t go to Italy much.

Different dictionaries tell you that fagiolini are ‘string beans’, ‘French beans’ or ‘little beans’. The last was the one intended.

This is amazingly unhelpful. Other sources refer to the “salacious slang connotations” and the “unfortunate slang connotations (both digestive and anatomical)” of the name, and elsewhere Hollingworth coyly referred to its slang connotations in Italian as “best not propagated here”.

(Their music is wonderful, by the way. Recently recorded:

I Fagiolini have released on Decca the world première recording of Striggio’s 40-part mass, Ecco sì beato giorno (1566) and Tallis’s Spem in alium (inspired by the mass) in a new version with voices and instruments.

On the Tallis, see here.)

Now on Italian beans. There are seed beans (fagiolo, pl. fagioli) — in particular, the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), with variants known in English as kidney, pinto, navy, cranberry, white, black, etc. beans — and the pod bean (fagiolino, pl. fagiolini), known in English under the names string bean, green bean, snap bean, and (BrE) runner bean. Photo of an assortment of fagioli and one of fagiolini:

The words fagioli and fagiolini are perfectly good Italian words, as ordinary as bean is in English. On the first, consider:

Pasta e fagioli or pasta fagioli or [Neapolitan] pasta fazool (especially in the U.S.), meaning “pasta and beans”, is a traditional Italian dish. Like many other Italian favorites including pizza and polenta, the dish started as a peasant dish, due to being composed of inexpensive ingredients. Today it can be widely found, even in restaurants that do not specialize in Italian cuisine.

Pasta fagioli is commonly made using cannellini beans [white beans] or borlotti beans [cranberry beans] and some type of small pasta such as elbow macaroni or ditalini. The base is generally olive oil, garlic, minced onion, and spices, along with stewed tomato or tomato paste. Some variations do not include tomatoes at all, and are made from a broth. Modern restaurant recipes may be vegetarian, or include an Italian meat such as prosciutto. (link)

On the second, fagiolino ‘string bean’ (a diminutive in form) is respectable enough to serve as the name of a restaurant, in particular the Trattoria da Fagiolino in Cutigliano (in the Appennines).

But of course everyday words can pick up uses as salacious slang, via metaphorical or metonymic extension. A word meaning ‘seed bean’ could be used metaphorically for the clitoris (as bean has in English slang), or metonymically for a fart (so that a word meaning ‘little seed bean’ could pick up the meaning ‘little fart’); and a word meaning ‘pod bean’ could be used metaphorically for the penis. Such uses would co-exist with the everyday innocent uses of the words.

I assume that something like this has happened in some varieties of Italian, but so far  I’ve been unable to verify my suspicions — because everyone seems to be too scrupulous to explain the vulgar uses of fagiolino!

[Extra. If you’re an English speaker and you want to be titillated by Italian words with FAG in them, you can consult the WordMine.into site, which will supply a list of 419 such words, here, and a smaller list of words (98 of them) that begin with FAG, here. And on this blog, there’s my posting on Fagolosi (a brand name of Italian breadsticks), the pasta fagottini (fagottino ‘little purse’, related to fagotto ‘purse’), and fagotto ‘bassoon’.]

[Extra extra. In addition to subsective compounds like navy bean and green bean — referring to types of beans — there’s also a collection of non-subsective compounds of the resembloid type: coffee bean, cocoa bean, castor bean, vanilla bean (referring to non-beans that resemble either seed beans or pod beans).]

7 Responses to “Slang connotations too unfortunate to explain”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Alex Jaker on Facebook:

    I’m an Italian speaker but I don’t know what the slang use referred to is. There is a verb ‘fagiolare’ which means ‘to be useful, pleasing’, e.g. “non fagiola” ‘it’s of no help’; “non mi fagiola” ‘it doesn’t sit well with me’. Presumably this relates to the usefulness of beans.

    My response:

    On the one hand, there are a lot of varieties of “Italian” and Italian slangs, so who knows where this could have come from. On the other hand, it could just have been a joke.

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    “Beans” can also refer to testicles, which is what “fagiolini” reminded me of–just recall the line in There’s Something About Mary involving “frank’n’beans”. In fact, in Italian, there would be two separate opportunities for using this term–as a “sack” with hidden “beans”–sort of the equivalent of Dutch “klootzak”–and as “little beans”, implying lack of masculinity or low potency (as opposed to, say, in English, “elephant balls”). I am not suggesting that either one of these is–just that these are possibilities.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, there are plenty of natural metaphors around to be exploited in slang.

      I’m still not entirely sure this isn’t just a joke on Hollingworth’s part, a bit of playful publicity.

  3. Robert Hollingworth Says:

    Someone just sent me this. Wow – you need to get out more! It’s all true though. We were authoratitively told it meant both little farts and cockerels’ testicles.

    Hi from Perth, WA.

    Robert Hollingworth

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I can’t see how “getting out more” would have helped me in this case. I haven’t yet found a source or a speaker of Italian to verify the speculations on the slang uses. It’s certainly not the case that slang uses have tainted other uses of fagiolini, which is a perfectly ordinary Italian word. (Just as English bean is untainted by its various slang uses.)

      So I wonder who these authorities were and what variety of Italian they were talking about. In any case, it sounds like your authorities were blowing a little thing up into a big one. (The sort of thing that happens in reports about trade names that are said to be unusable in various countries because they have obscene slang meanings in the local language. It does happen, but most of these reports are urban legends.)

  4. Ian Porter Says:

    ‘male genitalia’ says 2013 Yorkshire Times adjacent site. ‘We are SO not going there,’ I remember Hollingworth saying on BBC Radio 3 re this, ie yet again, to presenter Sean Rafferty a couple of years ago.

  5. Ian Porter Says:

    recent offerings: ?Early Byrd, Caged Byrd [as a Catholic under a Prot. Queen]. ?Free as a Byrd. The full Monteverdi. The Yorkshire Times article recalls a poster promising ‘…with some really fast fiddling’.

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