Duterte and the “O” word

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag - The Freeman

If you have been unsettled by the things President Duterte has done, or inspired others to do, perhaps you have not been paying attention to all he has been saying. Last Tuesday Duterte spoke to a gathering of soldiers and medical staff at the AFP Medical Center. He recounted dropping in on some wounded soldiers. One in particular caught his eye. Sitting on his bed, he held his hand and asked the patient in Cebuano: "Kumusta man ang imong o..n, mobarug pa?"

A few souls in the audience snickered uncomfortably, probably Cebuano-literate. But to the vast majority of the non-Cebuano-speaking assembly, the comment flashed by unnoticed. Uncomprehending, they missed the very first time in history that the Cebuano "O" word deserved enough dignity to be included in a presidential speech. So, to those who caught it in the audience, and those who saw it live on tv- congrats, you have just witnessed history made.

And to put an end to your agony, the Cebuano "O" word translates to penis in English. In effect, Duterte asked the patient how his penis was and whether he can still get it up.  There is, however, an ocean of a difference between things said in Cebuano and when said in English, or vice versa. The nuances often get lost because the context that is in the original language can never be recaptured in the translation. Hence, the English version will never get why Duterte asked what he did.

But what should be even more interesting to the growing number of Duterte watchers and Duterte analysts is the fact that the president was probably never even aware that he has just uttered the Cebuano "O" word. There was not the slightest hint of mischief on his face which is often evident when he is joking and playing to an audience. The words just tumbled out of his mouth as if he was just talking instead of giving a speech.

And that is another thing that makes Duterte an interesting speaker. He has absolutely no airs. His speeches become part of what he is. He ends up forgetting he is giving a speech and thinks he is just conversing with people across the table, or in some lonely street corner. That is why he blurts out words that were never in the script. It is because he cannot be constricted within the margins of a space too small and predictable for such a huge and boundless character as his.

Still, why the Cebuano "O" word? Why did Duterte ask the patient how his "O" was doing and whether he can still get it up. Well, now I owe the non-Cebuanos an explanation: Duterte is half-Cebuano, his father being one. More importantly, he grew up mostly in the Cebuano-speaking areas of Mindanao like Davao. In his every bone and sinew is a Cebuano in all its admirable glory, plus a few warts thrown in here and there.

Duterte asked the patient how his penis was doing because, among Cebuano men, his penis is the ultimate measure of his physical and mental well-being.No matter how sick he is, no matter how bed-ridden he is, his penis is the one thing he checks. If he can still get it up, then he is still ok. If not, then it is time to call the priest. That was why Duterte asked the wounded soldier. The good news is, the soldier reportedly nodded enthusiastically.

The Visayas, though, is a very fractious region so that the Cebuano "O" word, while generally understood, does not normally apply to the same thing elsewhere.In Leyte, for example, or at least in the Waray areas where my wife is from - there they do not use the Cebuano "O" word. In its place, they use something really strange. The penis in the language of the Waray is the Cebuano word for red hot chili pepper, which is "sili."

One time, The Freeman sent a team, me included, to cover the 50th anniversary of the Leyte Landing. We stayed with my in-laws in Carigara. Finding free time, we went to the market and our photographer then, Tonee Despojo, who also dabbles in cooking, went to a vegetable stall and asked, rather loudly, if they had some big red "sili." To my horror, I forgot to forewarn Tonee about certain words. Too late. The young "tindera" grew red in the face and the whole market broke out laughing.

The Tagalogs have their own word for penis as do the Ilonggos, Bicolanos, Ilocanos and so many others. And yet, despite the cacophony of spoken translations, everybody seems to understand what they mean. More importantly, they know what it is for. There is no ambiguity when it comes to this thing. No ifs or buts.

That is why, when Duterte asked the patient, he nodded enthusiastically, even if he was not a Cebuano. There is always a common thread when men talk, even without words.



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