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Macaronic Orthography; or The Devill Kis his 肛門

I’ve been rather delinquent in posting to the SLA blog recently due to some major shake-ups in my personal and professional life. At the beginning of this month I moved from Norman, Oklahoma to Nagoya, Japan to begin work at Nagoya University. In addition to the long distance move, I have begun work at the newly-formed Academic Writing Unit in the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences here at Nagoya. In one move I have come to face the challenges of setting up a new home, helping to set up a new university department, and adjusting to a new cultural and linguistic landscape.

This last, the new linguistic landscape, should provide me with abundant topics to discuss here. I hope some of these musings will be of interest to my colleagues in linguistic anthropology.

On that score, my commute to campus this morning provided a particularly sexy topic with which to inaugurate what may become a series of observations on life in Japan. That topic is orthographic macarone.

“Macarone” is the name given to a tradition of usually humorous writing popular in Medieval and Renaissance Europe that mixed Latin or other foreign languages with local vernaculars. Twelfth century drinking songs, for example, mixed bits of courtly French and Latin within English lyrics to give a startling and therefore humorous effect. John Skelton wrote this bit of macarone around 1465, near the beginnings of Modern English.

The devill kis his culum!
With, “Hey, howe, rubelow,”
Per omnia secula seculorum.

The devil kiss his ass!
With, “Hey, ho, rubelow.”
For ever and ever.)

[That “rumpopulorum” bit appears to my untutored eyes to be a popular bit of nonsense, probably related the Latin populorum “of the people,” but perhaps some Latin scholar will illuminate us via the comments section.]

As I said, my commute this morning revealed that macarone is alive and well among Japanese taggers. On a white guard rail near my home the following words were added in brown spray paint.

セX  Sex大好

The second bit suggests that the tagging was done by an adolescent who was excited by the transgressive nature of what he or she was doing. It can be transliterated as Sex daisuki and means, “I love sex.” One thing that raises this contribution above ordinary adolescent sniggering is the mixture of an English word with kanji, the Japanese version of Chinese logographs.

The first part of the tag is even more interesting in this respect. The character セ represents the syllable /se/ in katakana, the syllabary often used for foreign words. It is combined with the Latin character X to produce a word that we can understand as “sex” either by converting the katakana to <se> or by understanding that X is meant to be pronounced /ks/.

The latter understanding is easy enough for an English speaker, since orthographic <x> does typically indicate /ks/ in written English. In Japanese, though, I think it would typically be thought of /batsu/, a word meaning “cross” or “X-shaped”. (It could also be /ekusu/, the name of the Latin character as realized in Japanese syllables.)

The former, that セ is in some sense equivalent to <se> might be more likely to occur to a literate Japanese person, as the syllable is written that way in romaji, the form of Japanese writing in which Japanese syllables are rendered in Latin characters. Such playful substitution might occur to someone who is still learning to write and therefore has a more flexible sense of the meanings and uses of writing techniques and technologies. This again suggests an adolescent author.

Adolescent tagger, though you were likely unaware of your link to John Skelton and other European Renaissance sniggerers, I salute you.