The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 09 Jun 2020

The two-bit huckster in medieval Italy

The eighth story on the seventh day of the Decameron concerns a Monna Sismonda, a young gentlewoman who is married to a merchant. She contrives to cheat on him, and then when her husband Arriguccio catches her, she manages to deflect the blame through a cunning series of lies. Arriguccio summons Sismonda's mother and brothers to witness her misbehavior, but when Sismonda seems to refute his claims, they heap abuse on him. Sismonda's mother rants about merchants with noble pretensions who marry above their station. My English translation (by G.H. McWilliam, 1972) included this striking phrase:

‘Have you heard how your poor sister is treated by this precious brother-in-law of yours? He’s a tuppenny-ha’penny pedlar, that's what he is!’

“Tuppeny-ha’penny” seemed rather odd in the context of medieval Florentines. It put me in mind of Douglas Hofstadter's complaint about an English translation of Crime and Punishment that rendered “S[toliarny] Pereulok” as “Carpenter’s Lane”:

So now we might imagine ourselves in London, … and in the midst of a situation invented by Dickens… . Is that what we want?

Intrigued by McWilliam's choice, I went to look at the other translation I had handy, John Payne's of 1886, as adapted by Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin in 2004:

‘Have you heard how your fine brother-in-law here, this two-bit huckster, is treating your sister?’

This seemed even more jarring, because Payne was English and Ó Cuilleanáin is Irish, but “two-bit” is 100% American. I wondered what the original had said.

Brown University has the Italian text online, so I didn't even have to go into the house to find out the answer:

‘Avete voi udito come il buono vostro cognato tratta la sirocchia vostra, mercatantuolo di quattro denari che egli è?’

In the coinage of the time, the denier or denarius was the penny, equal in value (at least notionally) to !!\frac1{240}!! of a pound (lira) of silver. It is the reason that pre-decimal British currency wrote fourpence as “4d.”. I think ‘-uolo’ is a diminutive suffix, so that Sismonda's mother is calling Arriguccio a fourpenny merchantling.

McWilliam’s and Ó Cuilleanáin’s translations are looking pretty good! I judged them too hastily.

While writing this up I was bothered by something else. I decided it was impossible that John Payne, in England in 1886, had ever written the words “two-bit huckster”. So I hunted up the original Payne translation from which Ó Cuilleanáin had adapted his version. I was only half right:

‘Have you heard how your fine brother-in-law here entreateth your sister? Four-farthing huckster that he is!’

“Four-farthing” is a quite literal translation of the original Italian, a farthing being an old-style English coin worth one-fourth of a penny. I was surprised to see “huckster”, which I would have guessed was 19th-century American slang. But my guess was completely wrong: “Huckster” is Middle English, going back at least to the 14th century.

In the Payne edition, there's a footnote attached to “four-farthing” that explains:

Or, in modern parlance, ‘twopenny-halfpenny.’

which is what McWilliam had. I don't know if the footnote is Payne's or belongs to the 1925 editor.

The Internet Archive's copy of the Payne translation was published in 1925, with naughty illustrations by Clara Tice. Wikipedia says “According to herself and the New York Times, in 1908 Tice was the first woman in Greenwich Village to bob her hair.”

[ Addendum 20210331: It took me until now to realize that -uolo is probably akin to the -ole suffix one finds in French words like casserole and profiterole, and derived from the Latin diminutive suffix -ulus that one finds in calculus and annulus. ]

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