CARACAS (Reuters) - A head of state describing a mobile phone by using a crude term for male genitalia would spark outcry in most countries, but in Venezuela such language is a big part of President Hugo Chavez’s popular appeal.
Chavez has made vulgar language and insults a trademark of his decade in power. He once told the country he would have sex with his wife when he got home that day, has called Americans “shits” and described former U.S. President George W. Bush as “the devil” and a “donkey.”
So it was no great surprise when he recently called the first cellphone to be made in Venezuela the “vergatario,” a word derived from a popular slang term for penis.
The word is widely used in western Venezuela to refer to something seen as high quality and it raised little more than giggles when Chavez talked about the phone.
The president’s earthy and sometimes downright vulgar speech exasperates opponents who are often the target of his insults, but it helps explain the socialist’s enduring popularity with followers who relate to his humble roots in a dirt-floored country hut.
Chavez, who studied to university level in a military academy, shot to fame after a failed coup in 1992. He went on to win the presidency in 1998 and his approval ratings remain above 50 percent after a decade of social spending and nationalizations in the South American oil exporter.
“I’m going to call Fidel Castro on the vergatario. We won’t be intercepted,” Chavez, a friend of the former Cuban leader, said the week the phone was launched.
Chavez says he was not referring to male genitalia when he nicknamed the $14 phone, made using Chinese technology and featuring a camera, radio and MP3 player.
Venezuelans use a particularly lewd version of Spanish packed with references to male and female reproductive organs, genital lice and sexual orientation, and Chavez — apparently deliberately — does not seek a more dignified presidential tone.
Last year, he launched into a lengthy description of his bowel functions during a televised address.
On the streets of Caracas, it is not uncommon to hear mothers refer to their children as “conitos” a diminutive that refers to female genitalia. Such words are now so commonplace that they have all but lost their original meaning and power to shock.
“Venezuelans love that florid and elaborate language full of jargon and slang words,” says linguist Manuel Bermudez of the Venezuelan Academy of Language, adding that Chavez plays on it deliberately. “It’s calculated; that kind of discourse reaches the people.”
Chavez uses “an embroidered quilt” of popular expressions derived from baseball and army slang, says Bermudez, who follows the development of what he calls “Chavezspeak.”
Venezuelans’ language may be coarse but presidents were for long expected to be a cut above the crowd, and many of Chavez’s opponents say he has caused a decline in standards.
“The way he talks is very crude and it makes me feel ashamed,” said Maria Luisa Garcia, a 70-year-old social worker from the fashionable Los Palos Grandes neighborhood in Caracas. “A president needs to project a good image.”
“In a country where the majority of people are young, the language he uses is an influence on everyone else. It’s for that reason that everyone has become ruder.”
Chavez saves his sharpest jabs for his opponents. In recent years, he has resuscitated belittling colloquialisms such as “escualido” and “pitiyanqui”.
Escualido is a popular term from the plains of western Venezuela, used to describe something small or pathetic.
Chavez favored term is now “pitiyanqui”, which derives from the French word “petit” meaning small and the Spanish spelling for Yankee. It was also used by some previous Venezuelan presidents to describe dotage for the United States by the country’s elites.
Opposition figures have embraced the insults as badges of identity, and they have also found retorts: When Chavez spent billions of dollars buying arms from Russia and invited its navy to one of Venezuela’s ports, his political foes took to calling him “pitiruso.”
Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Kieran Murray