Stinking fish and coffee: The language of corruption

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Carp heads in a pot

What do "beans for the kids" in Kinshasa, "a glass of wine" in Paris, and "little carps" in Prague have in common? The phrases tell you something about local cuisine - but they are also euphemisms for bribes.

The language of corruption differs from one country to the next, but there are also striking similarities, as David Henig (University of Kent) and Nicolette Makovicky (University of Oxford) illustrate in the following examples.

1. Cash for soup (Turkish)

If you are stopped by traffic police in North Africa the officer may well ask you to sponsor his next cup of "kahwe", or coffee. In Kenya you might be stopped by traffic policemen and asked to contribute to "tea for the elders" ("chai ya wazee" in Swahili). But in Turkey, the police would rather you give them "cash for soup", or "chorba parasi" - soup is traditionally eaten at the end of a night of heavy drinking.

Image caption,
It's just a bowl of soup, right?

2. Respect (Azeri)

Whether it happens on the street, or in the boardroom, corruption rests on the abuse of power and privilege. But popular euphemisms often deny this reality and present corrupt behaviour as altruistic "favours" for friends. In Azeri, the word commonly used for bribe - "hurmat" - is interchangeable with the word for respect. An official requesting a bribe will therefore ask you to "do him a favour" - "hurmatimi ela".

3. A fish starts to stink at the head (Turkish)

The phrase "a fish starts to stink at the head" (balik bashtan kokar) comes from Turkey, reminding us that petty bribes at street-level are often matched by greater corruption at the top of organisations and institutions. Mexican officials looking to earn a kickback for arranging a business deal will demand they are given "a bite" (una mordida), while their Colombian counterparts are said to "saw" (serrucho) off a part of a government contract for themselves.

Image caption,
"Money for tea" is a popular euphemism in several countries

4. Gratitude (Hungarian/Mandarin)

The term corruption implies both illegal and immoral behaviour. But in some regions, what is technically illegal may in fact be seen as acceptable or even moral behaviour. In Hungary, doctors and nurses can expect a "gratuity" (haalapenz) from their patients in the form of an envelope containing money. In Poland, gifts in kind turn a faceless bureaucrat into an "acquaintance" (znayamoshch) who may be able to "arrange things" (zalatvich spravi) for you in the future. In China, healthcare workers and government officials also expect a "little token of gratitude" (yidian xinyi) for their services. As it is said in Russia, you cannot "put 'thank you' into your pocket" - that's "spasibo v karman ne polozhish".

5. Under the table (English/ French/ Farsi/ Swedish)

Image caption,
What's happening under the table?

Popular phrases used for speaking about corruption are often metaphorical. The well-known English phrase describing money being passed "under the table", for example, also exists in French (dessous de table), Farsi (zir-e mize) and Swedish (pengar under bordet). Other expressions emphasise movement. In Hungary, "oiling money" (kenepenz) is paid to officials to grease the wheels of bureaucracy, while the Russians know it is sometimes necessary to put something on the palm of an official's hand ("polozhit na ladon" or "dat na lapu") in order to move things along.

6. Something small (Swahili)

Image caption,
It's not a bribe - it's just a little coffee

Many euphemisms of corruption and bribery work to deflect attention from the action or minimise its importance. The Swahili expression "kitu kidogo" (something small) is a good example of this. In Ivory Coast the police used to ask for a "pourboire" (the cost of a drink), comparing the size of the bribe to that of a small tip. The Brazilian term for a bribe - "um cafezinho" (a little coffee) - also doubles as the term for a tip in the conventional sense.

7. Money for tea (Pashto/Farsi)

The universal popularity of tea and coffee as metaphors for bribes points to another way euphemisms function to conceal the true nature of a corrupt transaction. In Afghanistan and Iran the expression for a bribe is "poul-e-chai", meaning "money for tea". In both countries, tea-drinking is an essential part of social life. Asking for "money for tea" carries the suggestion that the bribe will be shared with others. Some expressions - such as "beans for the kids" - appeal to a sense of charity by claiming a bribe benefits someone more deserving.

8. Cash for questions (English)

Large-scale corruption has its own vocabulary, often created by the media. The "cash for questions" scandal involving British politicians comes to mind, as well as the Italian "tangentopoli" ("bribesville") scandal in the early 1990s. Combining "tangente" meaning kickback, and "-poli" meaning city, the term referred to kickbacks given to politicians for awarding public works contracts.

9. Nokia box (Hungarian)

Image caption,
Q: How much is an old mobile phone box worth in Hungary? A: Quite a lot

In Hungary, the term "Nokia box" became a symbol of corruption in 2010 after the head of the Budapest Public Transport Company, Zsolt Balogh, was caught handing over cash to the deputy mayor of Budapest, Miklos Hagyo, in a Nokia box. Since then, "Nokia box" has also became a sort of unit of measurement - meaning 15m forints ($65,000) - the size of Balogh's original bribe.

10. Little carp (Czech)

In the Czech Republic, the terms "little carp" (kaprzhici), or "fish" (ryby), were used as a coded language during a large corruption scandal in Czech football. In the communication between the managers, referees and players, a "little carp" also operated as a unit of measurement, meaning 1,000 Czech koruna ($50) a "fish". The euphemism "little carp" has become a Czech synonym for corruption.

All transliterations approximate. There will be a report about the language of corruption on this week's edition of the BBC World Service on The Fifth Floor, at 11:00 GMT on Friday - part of a series of special reports and articles about corruption this week on the BBC.

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