The refuse joke

Passed on, back on 7/21, by a friend on Facebook, a dumpster texty (of murky origin) with a (N vs. V) pun that works in spelling (REFUSE) but not in pronunciation —

N /ˈrefˌjus/   vs.  V /rəˈfjuz/

— plus, as commentary, Dylan Thomas expanding on the improbable (not to mention grotesque) V reading of the text (as opposed to the obviously intended N one). Which will then take us to Harry Diboula’s “Je refuse”, a French zouk song of lost love, which ended up in romantic Paris from the Kingdom of Kongo by way of the French Caribbean.

(#1) Like all right-minded people, I reject the idea that I — or, more precisely, my bodily remains — should be stored in black plastic sacks and placed in dumpsters. Ick. Je refuse!

Background 1: the source of #1. The 7/21 Facebook exchange between me and an old friend X:

X > AZ:  I thought you’d appreciate this.

AZ > X: I might post about this on my blog, but I’d need the source of the image — where was it, roughly when?

X > AZ:  I copied it from a friend. It seems to be all over the web, but there’s no sign of its origin. I’ll let you know if I can track it down.

AZ > X: Yes, it seems that people pass it around. I now suspect that (like many such images and texts) it’s an invention, a joke — so there never was such an actual sign and trying to find something of the sort is just a waste of time.

Background 2: the notion of texty. From my 8/7/18 posting “Two texties, in two tonalities”:

Texties are cartoon-like compositions in which a pictorial component is entirely absent or merely decorative, not essential to the point of the composition — in effect, words-only cartoons; they can be intended as humor, like gag cartoons, or as serious commentary, like political cartoons.

Background 3: the N and the V. One spelling (REFUSE), two lexical items, of different parts of speech, with strikingly different pronunciations. Together making the pun that’s the point of the texty. From NOAD:

noun refuse /ˈrefˌjus/: matter thrown away or rejected as worthless; trash: heaps of refuse | refuse collection.

verb refuse /rəˈfjuz/: [a] [no object, with infinitive] indicate or show that one is not willing to do something: I refused to answer | he was severely beaten when he refused. …

Background 4: signage and its syntax. The texty is a (purported) sign; the inscriptions on signs are telegraphic texts, with a syntax of their own, shared with other abbreviated directive texts — texts of instruction, advice, admonishment, warning, and prohibition (use labels, traffic and parking signs, medical prescriptions, assembly instructions, and so on).

On its V reading, the text in #1 is a straightforward imperative sentence, in form a BSE-form VP composed of the head V REFUSE plus its infinitival complement. The (intended) reader of the text is urged to reject being stored in bags and placed in the provided containers.

On its N reading, the text in #1 consists of a subject, the M(ass) N REFUSE, combined with a predicate infinitival VP, understood as the complement of   modal BE (expressing obligation, intention, schedule, or prediction); the (intended) reader of the text is urged to store any refuse in bags and place it in the provided containers. That is, the text is an abbreviated version of something like

Refuse is to be stored in … and placed in …

(with the “modal BE TO” construction), copula omission being a common feature of telegraphic texts.

So much for the text. On to the commentary.

Do not go gentle; refuse. From Wikipedia:

“Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem in the form of a villanelle by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914–1953), considered his best-known work. Though first published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1951, the poem was written in 1947 while Thomas visited Florence with his family.

… Summary: In the first stanza of “Do Not Go Gentle”, the speaker encourages their father not to “go gentle into that good night” but rather to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Then, in the subsequent stanzas, they proceed to list all manner of men, using terms such as “wise”, “good”, “wild”, and “grave” as descriptors, who, in their own respective ways, embody the refrains of the poem. In the final stanza, the speaker implores their father, whom they observe upon a “sad height”, begging him to “Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears”, and reiterates the refrains once more.

Dylan Thomas’s poem counsels refusal of death; Harry Diboula sings his refusal to accept lost love.

Diboula’s “Je refuse”.  A song of lost love, from his 2001 album Je refuse:

(#2) … with the chorus Je refuse de parler / Je refuse d’écouter / Je refuse de continuer ‘I refuse to speak / I refuse to listen / I refuse to continue’

Wikipedia identifies Diboula, born 10/12/62 in Paris, as an arranger, composer, and performer of zouk; and in this entry, very imperfectly translated from French, tells us that

Zouk is a musical movement pioneered by the French Antillean [esp. Guadeloupe and Martinique] band Kassav’ in the early 1980s. It was originally characterized by a fast tempo (120–145 bpm), a percussion-driven rhythm and a loud horn section. [and was especially influential in the Cape Verde Islands]

You can watch the music video of “Je refuse” here. Where, if you listen just to Diboula’s vocals, you will hear some transcendently French singing, romantic and poignant, calling up images of empty rain-slicked rues in the urban night, echoing with the passion of the singer’s voice. Oh my, I thought, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, but with Caribbean scoring.

So Diboula sings in a fine tradition of French male vocalists, and is apparently recognized by pop-music critics as a great Parisian singer. While simultaneously he is Other, someone who could never be a real Parisian, just look at his face:


At this point I was moved to wonder about his name, and about how he came to be born in Paris, and where the zouk came from.

The story begins in the heart of darkness, in the Kingdom of Kongo. From Wikipedia:

The Kingdom of Kongo … was a kingdom located in central Africa in present-day northern Angola, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo. At its greatest extent it reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Kwango River in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in the south.

… From c. 1390 to 1862 it was an independent state. From 1862 to 1914 it functioned intermittently as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Portugal

Then a crucial posting on the Lipstick Alley site, on “Kongo infuence in the Americas” by Marvolo on 9/5/17, where it’s hard to find information on the surname Diboula, but Diboulo is attested, though apparently only in Burkina Faso (and a bit in Ivory Coast). On the other hand, the slave trade taking people from Kongo to the Caribbean brought the Diboula name there, specifically in Guadeloupe:

Kongo names in Guadeloupe: Choucoutu, Condé, Diboula, Dendelé, Dongal, Gombo, Loumengo, Massembo, N’Dendélé, Ndendé, N’Goma, N’guéla, Siba, Simba, Sombé, Soumbo, Tacita, Tagliamento, Pambo, Zodros

That’s where zouk was created; and then it was carried to Paris by migration from Guadeloupe and Martinique. Along with Diboula’s family (presumably, seeking a better life). And so we got the gift of his music.

(All this from a memic texty.)

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