There was a time when ‘bugger’ was a very rude word. While it seems to be an acceptable expletive these days, I’ve never been able to work out how one could also use it to refer to someone (i.e. in a ‘bloke’ or ‘fellow’ type of context), when one of the senses of the word is what the blokes are allegedly doing to each other. Oh well, such is the evolution of language.
Closer to home we have our own beloved kak, which can be a verb, a noun, or an adjective. It is furthermore used as an expletive and as interjection. The word is most likely derived from the Dutch kakken (i.e. shit), but it more generally is used to denote that something sucks (interestingly, the vowel sounds in the middle of kak and ‘sucks’ are the same).
I was amazed to discover last week that academic papers have been written about kakonomics. The South African in me was quick to jump onto the prefix, and without any further study I assumed that I had a grasp of what the content was likely to be, especially when combined with yet another beautiful South Africanism for which there is no adequate translation: gatvol.
The literal translation – full hole – doesn’t come close to conveying the particularly ‘fed-up’, ‘had-enough’ state of irritation/frustration implied by gatvol. I assumed that gatvol had a role to play in kakonomics.
Of course, even the word kakken had to come from somewhere. Many European languages have their own versions (think caca), and they all refer to the same smelly stuff. The person behind kakonomics – Gloria Origgi – is a published academic in English, French and Italian, so she presumably has a bird’s eye view on the language side of things.
So, what is kakonomics? To use Origgi’s definition, it’s “the strange preference for low quality outcomes”. In other words, a tacit expectation of mediocrity from the person on the other side of the transaction enables one’s own mediocrity, and hence reduced feelings of guilt.
I think there’s plenty of that all around the world, but a particularly gatvol South African could pin-point dozens of instances every day where compromised exchanges take place.
Basically, it all comes back to buggery. You know that you are kind of going to get screwed by having to accept a lower standard than what you may have professed to expect, but you are going to screw the half-deliverer back by reneging on part of your promise.
And, because no-one feels any guilt it all has a happy ending. That’s kakonomics.