Red, but not off-color

I can’t find a picture of Dimitar Pantaleev, so here’s a picture of Schliemann’s wife. I’ve loved it since childhood, though I couldn’t tell you why.  Here she’s dressed in jewelry that they dug up in Turkey. Picture source: Storia Illustrata n. 167. Public domain.

My father once told me that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann spoke 14 languages, all of which (other than his native German) he learnt by memorizing a book in the language.  Whether or not this is true, I don’t know–my father’s level of willingness to just make things up is non-zero (although never malicious).  But, memorizing things in your language of choice makes as much sense to me as any other way of learning a language, and it’s certainly more fun than memorizing long lists of vocabulary.  Unfortunately, my choices of what to memorize are mostly drawn from the stuff that I like to read, which means that (from what I’m told), way too much of what comes out of my mouth is either off-color (Céline, Queneau) or marivaudage (Laclos, Molière).  (See the English notes below for what off-color means.)

As National Poetry Month continues, here’s the first poem that I ever tried to memorize in Bulgarian.  I only got as far as the first stanza, which may explain why my Bulgarian sucks (see here for a good example of the trouble you can get into when you don’t speak Bulgarian quite as well as you think you do).  By Dimitar Pantaleev, in theory it’s a Communist poem, although I don’t understand why, since it’s entirely anti-authoritarian–the title means I cross against a red light.  Also, as far as I can tell, he was considered a formalist, and Communists (Reds, if you will) were pretty anti-formalism, to the best of my (very limited) knowledge.

Amazingly, the poem was recorded as a song by the officially government-sanctioned rock group Diana Express.  The production is as unfortunate as most music recorded in the 1980s that wasn’t either Joan Armatrading, Simon and Garfunkel, or Elton John, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t spend $0.99 (literally) to buy it on Amazon, just for its inherent cool-value.  Amazingly, these guys are still around–here’s footage of them giving a concert two months ago in Atlanta, Georgia.

минавам на червена светлина

by Dimitar Pantaleev

Аз пазя свято земните закони,
но в дни, когато леден дъжд се рони
и трябвада спася една старица,
едно дете, една ранена птица
или една разплакана жена –
минавам на червена светлина.

Когато гинат младите тополи,
когато нечий глас за помощ моли
или когато в топлата ни есен
внезапно слъхва млада чиста песен
по чужда необмислена вина –
минавам на червена светлина.

А някой път, когато трябва смело
да се спаси едно човешко дело,
една любов или една страна,
провиквам се на кръстопътя ясно:
минете, въпреки, че е опасно,
минете на червена светлина.

English notes

Off-color means something like not quite obscene, but not quite OK, either, at least not for the context.  Here are some examples from the OPUS2 and enTenTen13 corpora, collections of 1.1 million and 19.7 billion words of English, respectively, that I searched through the Sketch Engine web site, purveyors of fine linguistic data in more languages than I care to count.  You’ll notice that it frequently modifies either joke or remark, and almost always a noun whose semantics have inherently to do with communication–

  • It’s an off-color remark, it was highly inappropriate.
  • Tom never tells off-color jokes.
  • You also need to be careful of the language you use – nothing off-color, or discriminatory.
  • For the most part, Smith said she overlooked the off-color jokes, sexist remarks and rituals that permeated the fighter pilot culture.
  • The event host was Leonard Maltin who remained professional during an event riddled with technical problems and a few off-color moments.
  • on many other websites normal people converse sans real names and do so without rancor, without hostility, without profanity, without racism, without sexism, without misogyny, without venom, without bile, without hatred, bigotry, obscenity and lame off-color jokes.
  • A disgruntled employee, or one with an off-color sense of humor, could post something reckless under the company’s name.
  • One of the most vivid characters in the show, whose off-color tantrums have become an audience favorite the way Kramer’s clumsy entrances once were.
  • This is the time to Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! in terms of cursing and off-color talk.
  • Crow is the most likely of the four movie-riffers to make off-color or lewd comments during the film, and receives frequent scoldings from Joel, Mike, and occasionally Tom because of this habit (see Crow Syndrome ).
  • And we hear what is believed to be Tiger telling an off-color joke.
  • Sure this is an extreme case but it’s a reminder that we all eventually have that moment when we get a complainer, an off-color remark, or misleading information posted by users on our social media sites.
  • The humor here is ribald and off-color and noone is safe from abuse including tuners, parents and vendors.
  • You’ll be teaching him the principles of keyword searching; at the same time, you’ll be able to steer him away from off-base or off-color content.

To get a really solid sense of how to use off-color, it’s useful to look at the other words that it occurs with.  (With which it occurs, if you prefer your sentences non-preposition-final.)  Here’s a screen shot of something called a “word sketch”–again, from the Sketch Engine web site.  Scroll down past the figure and I’ll talk you through it.

Screenshot 2017-04-14 06.01.28
Picture source: screen shot from the Sketch Engine web site.

At the top left, you see the adverbial modifiers that are most commonly associated with off-color.  Note that they are similar–mildly and slightly.  What you’re not seeing here are intensifiers–you wouldn’t typically say that something is very or horribly “off-color.”  Why?  I don’t know–that’s just the statistical tendency with this adjective.  You certainly could say that–but, a native speaker probably wouldn’t.

In the next column, you see the nouns that have the strongest statistical associations with off-color.  You won’t be surprised to see that the most common ones are joke, remark, and humor.  Most of the other words with strong statistical associations are other nouns that refer to humor–gag, limerick, hilarity, quip, banter, antic, and pun.

The next column over is a nice example of how you can get insight into a word by seeing what other words it’s joined with by and or or.  Most of the words that are joined with off-color in this way fall into one of two categories: they’re either related to humor, or they’re clearly negative.  The first category is related to the fact that off-color itself is so often used to modify joke and, as we saw in the preceding paragraph, other words that refer to humor.  In that category, we have:

  • hilarious
  • quirky
  • humorous
  • funny

In the second category, we have:

  • tasteless
  • vulgar
  • inappropriate
  • incorrect
  • crude
  • offensive
  • racist
  • rude
  • dirty
  • racial

If you had any questions about whether being off-color is good or bad, this should make it pretty clear to you that it’s not good.

In case you’re wondering: no, Sketch Engine does not pay me to shill for them.  In fact, I pay them quite a bit of money every year for access to their corpora and search engine.

One thought on “Red, but not off-color”

  1. Listen, off-color jokes are a kind of humour that a minority of the French, which I belong to, take a great pleasure to use . This pleasure is to be shared of course, and that’s when the hearers’ qualities play as well . It is like an antidote, a necessity to always keep our mental beliefs in perspective . Well, for me at least, and it’s a brotherly pleasure when you and the other, whoever, get the tune in tune, actually like our good trips with mates when we were kids, just playing at a different level .
    What are the differences between brother and friend ?
    Another thing, Socialists (in the true sense) are necessarily anti-conformist – and this is not far from the off-colour necessity in many fields . What the so-called Communist Parties became from the mid-1920s to ever was the opposite of the direction . There is a hugely visible reason why Stalin had half of the original Bolsheviks killed in the infamous Moscow trials .
    Freedom is what we need, and freedom of mind is the most precious, both systems, East and West, found their powerful ways to eradicate it .
    What are the differences between friend and comrade ?

    Instead of Céline and Queneau learn François Villon by heart . You can’t be off-color, the time needed for the hearer to understand gives you a comfortable safety net .

    Liked by 1 person

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