Coffee, carp and cash for soup: The language of corruption

11 October 2016

Ever wondered where the word “bung” came from? In its most popular current usage – to describe an illegal payment made to a football manager to induce them to buy a particular player – it may date back to the 16th century.

In old English, a purse was a “pung” and one popular theory is that the word got corrupted to “bung” over the centuries. Today, managers who take bungs are sadly behind the times. The hip new term is coffee, as in: “Is there any coffee in this deal for me?”, which is meant to imply that the sum concerned is the equivalent to the cost of a drink.

That metaphor is also popular in Syria, the Ivory Coast – where corrupt police might ask for a “pourboire” (the cost of a drink) – and in Brazil where a bribe is often described as “um cafezinho” (a little coffee). Confusingly, the same term is used for a conventional tip. Afghanistan and Iran have a different take on the same theme: their expression for a bribe is “poul-e-chai”, literally “money for tea”. Coffee and tea are also the favourite metaphors for police in parts of North Africa and Kenya whereas in Turkey a cop is more likely to ask you for “chorba paras” – “cash for soup” – because the dish is usually eaten at the end of a night of heavy drinking. In South Korea, such payments are referred to as “soju” (whisky).

The Czechs look to food, rather than drink. The terms "kaprzhici" (little carp) or "ryby" (fish) were used as a code in a football scandal involving managers, referees and players. They were also operated as a unit of measurement – a "ryby" was equivalent to around $50. Though the scandal has passed, carp and fish are still widely understood synonyms for corruption in the Czech Republic. In the same kind of process, “cash for questions” is still a byword for such skullduggery in Britain, even though the particular parliamentary scandal, involving the then Tory MP Neil Hamilton, ended more than 16 years ago.

The language of gifts is often used to suggest that corruption is neither illegal or immoral. In China, little moon cakes are traditionally exchanged during the mid-autumn festival but these could be conveyed in sets that include such ‘accessories’ as jewellery, electronics and booze. In South Korea, gifts of ttokkap – rice cake expenses – are placed in envelopes. Traditionally they are supposed to be small sums of money, but a Samsung lawyer has admitted handing out tens of thousands of dollars in these envelopes to public prosecutors. In India, they don’t bother with such pretence and business deals may come down to a person’s ability to “do the needful”.

In some countries, the vocabulary hints at the dark, illicit world of corruption. In Japan, they poetically refer to such malfeasance as kuroi kiri (black mist). Sometimes, it is the act itself that is described, the English “money under the table” is “dessous de table” in French. Elsewhere, the metaphor of greasing the wheels comes into play. In Germany, bribes may be “spicken” (lard) while in Hungary they use the term “kenepenz” (oil money). In Russia, where it is sometimes necessary to put something in the palm of an official’s hand, they have a saying “You cannot put ‘thank you’ into your pocket.”

The Mexicans probably have the richest lexicon of terms for corruption – 300 according to a new book – ranging from "mordida" (literally, "bite" referring to a bribe) to "abóganster" (an amalgam of lawyer and gangster used to describe any lawyer who promises to devise a “fiscal strategy” to evade taxes).  

Yet sometimes, the best slang is incredibly specific. In Hungary, the term “Nokia box” has become a shorthand for corruption after the head of Budapest Public Transport was caught handing over a Nokia cardboard box full of money to the city’s deputy mayor in 2010. As with the Czech fish, a “Nokia box” has become a unit of measurement – the box handed over contained the equivalent of $65,000.

And then there’s Cockney slang. Look beyond whistle and flute (suit), Pete Tong (wrong) and tea leaf (thief) and you find iron lung which, mysteriously, has come to mean "bung".

The great consolation for England’s former manager Sam Allardyce is that his surname has enough syllables to frustrate even the most inventive Cockney rhymester.

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