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Torts: The High Price of Silent Insults

3 minute read

Italian is one language in which a deaf-mute is not completely lost. Every facial tic, every finger flick, means something. A thumb jabbed at the mouth: “Waiter, bring some wine.” A semi-rotating hand with thumb and forefinger up: “No can do.” One raised finger: “Probably.” Palm open: “Probably not.” Tapping the center of the forehead: “Do you think I’m stupid?” Extended fingers slowly rubbing the underchin: “I couldn’t care less.”

Not surprisingly, a language so silently eloquent teems with insulting gestures and yowls for legal relief. Indeed, the Italian penal code provides up to six months’ imprisonment for “whosoever offends the honor or decorum of a person who is present,” a stiffer rap if several persons are present, and up to three years’ imprisonment for visual insults tossed at Italy’s President, Prime Minister, Senators, armed forces or the Pope.

The law makes it unhealthy, if no less popular, to commit such “crimes against honor” as rubbing the nose (questioning ancestry), tugging at the ear (questioning male virility) or fondling the back of the ear (alluding to pederasty). It is even illegal to stare suggestively at a pretty girl, though every self-respecting Italian male does it. On the other hand, there is one splendid defense: not intentionally getting caught in the act. A silent insult made behind a victim’s back may be ruled unintentional, even if it is seen reflected in a mirror or a window.

As every prudent Italian knows, it is perfectly legal and frequently necessary to fold the middle fingers back under the thumb and jab the first and little fingers down at the ground. Such “horns” ward off evil spirits. But if the fingers point upward? Ah, the corna instantly sneers that the addressee is a cuckold. The gesture is so unbearable that in Verona recently a truck driver was fined $50 and court costs for understandably lofting the corna at a madly beeping motorist.

In Rome, Butcher Alberico Amati tried to be more subtle when an undertaker moved in next door, casting a pall over Amati’s business. In reply, Amati propped up a pair of buffalo horns and insulting poems in his window; the display drew him an eight-month suspended sentence. His patience gone, Amati then got himself photographed in the newspapers with a two-finger corna defiantly aimed skyward. Tossed into jail, Amati was provisionally sprung last week pending an appeal of his original conviction—based on his claim that the buffalo horns were legal because they were inside his property. Whatever his fate, the butcher’s meaty argument has obviously touched millions of gesticulating Italians. In fact, his business has now doubled.

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