The universality of bu/bo/boo

The strange shrieks of theatrical monsters often don’t require translation.

Quevedo’s Buscón is an absolute bugger, probably the toughest thing I’ve attempted in Spanish. The plot is bad enough, but the linguistic complexity is quite devastating. His near contemporary, Shakespeare, is a very different bouillabaisse, but I imagine he presents similar problems of massive incomprehension to non-native English speakers. While fascinating, most of Quevedo’s allusions are so obscure that I finished with a sense more of relief than gain, but the occasional find brightened my night. One such came in the passage where Don Pablos sits down to write a religious comedy for a group of players:

Al fin, animado con este aplauso, me desvirgué de poeta en un romancico, y luego hice un entremés, y no pareció mal. Atrevíme á una comedia, y porque no escapase de ser divina cosa, la hice de Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Comenzaba por chirimías; había sus ánimas de Purgatorio y sus demonios, que se usaban entonces, con su “bu, bu” al salir, y “ri, ri” al entrar; caíale muy en gracia al lugar el nombre de Satán en las coplas, y el tratar luego de si cayó del cielo, y tal. En fin, mi comedia se hizo y pareció muy bien.

A pleasing 18th century translation–The pleasant history of the life and actions of Paul the Spanish sharper, the pattern of rogues, and mirror of vagabonds–comes up with the following:

Being encouraged by this applause, I launched out as a poet in a song, and then wrote a small farce, which was well approved of. Next I ventured at a play, and that it might gain respect, made it all of devotion, and full of the Blessed Virgin. It began with music, had fine shows of souls departed, and devils appearing, as was the fashion then, with old gibberish when they appeared, and strange shrieks when they vanished. The mob was mightily pleased with my rhyming to Satan, and my long discourses about his falling, or not falling from heaven. In short the play was acted, and well liked.

Such plays used stock characters, situations and dialogues, and the “bu, bu” and “ri, ri” seem to have been conventional monster markers. 18th century mummers’ plays work in a similar fashion, and I wonder why the translator felt the need to replace them “old gibberish” and “strange shrieks”. A note in a French translation of selected works of Quevedo published in 1776 explains:

Les Espagnols se servent de [bu], que ne signifie rien, pour faire peur aux Enfans, quand ils sont méchans ou qu’ils crient.

While the OED says of boo/booh:

1718 G. CROKATT Sc. Presbyterian Eloquence iii. 111 Boo is a word used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying Children. a1734 R. NORTH Examen (1740) iii. 133 He should catch up the Vizor, and, clapping it on his own Phiz, cry Boo, to fright neither Men nor Children. 1848 W. T. THOMPSON Major Jones’s Sketches xvii. 149 Fust he looked into my curtains. ‘Boo!’ ses I, and the little man’s head disappeared like a shot. 1922 P. G. WODEHOUSE Clicking of Cuthbert viii. 192 Do shout ‘Boo!’ at him when he is starting his down-swing! 1992 D. PARRY & P. WITHROW Jacamar Nest xxvi. 203 A small boy was coming at you tippytoe from your blind side, getting ready to say ‘Boo.’

I’m as fond of old gibberish and strange shrieks as the next foul zombie, but boo would have worked perfectly well in translation. I wonder what newer editions make of it.

Ah, says someone, so this word diffused across Europe, blah blah blah. The OED provides a more likely account, along the lines of physiological explanations of why babies say “ma”:

A combination of consonant and vowel especially fitted to produce a loud and startling sound.

Someone also says that “bu” is being evicted from Spanish by “grrrr” monster roars imposed by Anglo-Saxon capitalism. I’ll believe it when I hear it.

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