The green of the louse/Lo verde del piojo

An etymological hop from kite-flying with Juan Marsé back to Concha Piquer’s greatest hit.

Seen from Turó de la Rubira, a solitary head louse in light drizzle on Monte Carmelo.

Seen from Turó de la Rubira, a solitary head louse in light drizzle on Monte Carmelo.

Translating a snippet from the beginning of Juan Marsé’s marvellously evocative Last evenings with Teresa/Últimas tardes con Teresa for this Barcelona walking tour, I came across an interesting expression of which I knew the meaning but not the etymology:

El Monte Carmelo es una colina desnuda y árida situada al noroeste de la ciudad. Manejados los invisibles hilos por expertas manos de niño, a menudo se ven cometas de brillantes colores en el azul del cielo, estremecidas por el viento, asomando por encima de la cumbre igual que escudos que anunciaran un sueño guerrero. En los grises años de la postguerra, cuando el estómago vacío y el piojo verde exigían cada día algún sueño que hiciera más soportable la realidad, el Monte Carmelo fue predilecto y fabuloso campo de aventuras de los desarrapados niños de los barrios de Casa Baró, del Guinardó y de La Salud. Subían a lo alto, donde silba el viento, a lanzar cometas de tosca fabricación casera, hechas con pasta de harina, cañas, trapos y papel de periódico: durante mucho tiempo temblaron, coletearon furiosamente en el cielo de la ciudad, fotografías y noticias del avance alemán en los frentes de Europa, reinaba la muerte y la desolación, el racionamiento semanal de los españoles, la miseria y el hambre. Hoy, en el verano de 1956, las cometas del Carmelo no llevan noticias ni fotos, ni están hechas con periódicos, sino con fino papel de seda comprado en alguna tienda, y sus colores son chillones, escandalosos. Pero a pesar de esa mejora en su aspecto, muchas siguen siendo de fabricación casera, su armazón es tosca y pesada, y se elevan con dificultad: siguen siendo el estandarte guerrero del barrio.

Prior to the Civil War a piojo verde was an aphid, and doubtless some unhappy translator will have come to some very strange conclusions as a result. Humans don’t suffer from infestations of aphids, and here we are dealing, not with a louse that is green, but with the human body louse, Pediculus humanus humanus. So the passage reads something like this in English:

Mount Carmel is a naked, barren hill located northwest [the Fact God says NNW, but Marsé is a licensed poet] of the city. Their invisible strings managed by the expert hands of children, you will often see brightly-coloured kites in the blue of the sky, shuddering in the wind, hovering above the summit like coats of arms announcing a warrior dream. In those grey postwar years, when empty stomachs and body lice required a dream a day to make reality more bearable, Mount Carmel was the favourite and fabulous field of adventure for the scruffy children from the neighbourhoods of Casa Baró, Guinardó and La Salud. They climbed to the top where the wind whistles to launch crude home-made kites constructed with flour paste, cane, rags and newspaper: for a long time there trembled and flapped fiercely in the city sky photos and news of the German advance on the fronts of Europe, death and destruction reigned, the weekly ration of Spaniards, misery and hunger. Now, in the summer of 1956, Carmel’s kites no longer bear news or photos, nor are they made of newspapers, but rather of fine tissue paper bought in some shop, and their colours are garish, shocking. But despite this improvement in their appearance, many are still home-made, their frames coarse and heavy, and they gain height with difficulty: still the neighborhood’s banner of war.

Whence this conflict between literary and optical hue? Ángel Casas Carnicero, a distinguished doctor and politician from Palencia, has a hypothesis:

Why was it green? Well actually it wasn’t. It was the same Pediculus vestimenti that has always been with us, although it is now very rare. Quite another thing is Pediculus capiti, the head louse, which still causes problems in primary schools. The former was rather light in colour, the latter black. I speak from experience, having had both as lodgers. That was years ago, during the Civil War. Later I met up again with the the one that makes its home in clothes (or rather seams) in the 1940-5 exanthematic typhus epidemic, a disease that I encountered widely, first as a student intern and later as a recent medical graduate, to the extent that 80% of my doctoral thesis was realised with these patients. I think I must be one of the few doctors left in Spain with direct experience of this extremely serious disease, at least for the era before antibiotics. Now it would be more bearable.

But let’s get back to the colour. Back in the early forties of the last century a very serious disease appeared in Spain which was unknown and caused high fever and a state of semi-consciousness. As it manifested itself in those held in concentration camps and in beggars and vagrants, not too much importance was attached to it initially, until some professors, including one with whom I was working, Professor Bañuelos, said it was exanthematic typhus, which was transmitted by lice, which was untreatable, which caused high mortality, and, above all, which was capable of spreading to the rest of the population–when patients die, the lice migrate to the first humans they encounter and give them typhus.

A student friend of mine who was already practising as a doctor in Palencia was infected in this fashion. There was no choice but to sound the alarm and fight the lice. People joked about the war on lice because low living standards at the time meant that they were common. A very popular song in those years was “Ojos verdes“/”Green eyes”, of which the Church took a very poor view–and quite logically so, since the owner of the green eyes is standing in a brothel door, and, when the singer takes his leave and wants to give her something toward a dress, she replies, “Look, you told me you’re satisfied, you don’t have to give me anything.” The character in the song was depicted very well. The censors didn’t approve of it, but it came from the already defunct red [i.e. Communist] zone and spread widely, and there was no way of banning it, although it was persecuted more or less openly, and although the lyrics were changed somewhat, it remained a “bad” song. Then came the war on lice, which people also called green [this relies on the pun ojo -> piojo], and so some called the disease “the green louse”–although “disease of the green louse” would have been better–with that humorous tone so typical of the Spanish, who, what with the killed, the hunger and the gaols, already had quite enough on their plates without this additional drama. This theory of my own regarding the origins of the name is for want of another, for which I have searched without success, I suspect because there is none.

Independent confirmation of this association between melody and malady is to be found in a parody of “Ojos verdes” recorded by Millán Salcedo for the popular television series, Martes y trece, twenty odd years ago. Concha Piquer recorded the copla in the mid-1930s, but here Millán is subtitled as Concha Picores (Concha Itches) as he scratches his lower midriff:

There are numerous other versions around. Here’s Rocío Jurado in 1992, more gypsy, less Sevillana, and with more vocal control and less cheap sentiment than Isabel Pantoja, who was also singing it around that time:

I couldn’t find Piquer’s recording, but here she is in another of her great hits, “Y sin embargo te quiero”. I think she’s tremendous:

Early 20th century dwellings in what some refer to as Mount Carmel’s gypsy barrio

The higher slopes

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