Vernaculars of informality

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Original text by Nicolette Makovicky, School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, University of Oxford, and David Henig, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent

What do ‘beans for the kids’ in Kinshasa, ‘a glass of wine’ in Paris, and ‘little carps’ in Prague have in common? ‘Variations in local cuisine’ may spring to mind, and rightly so. However, they are also ways of referring to informal economic practices - described by many as corruption or bribery - in each of these places. And as with regional variations in cuisine, informal economic activities come in many culturally diverse guises and with many different labels which reflect local customs, histories, and practices. Language, in short, is a constitutive part of all semi-and illegal practices, as well as the models of informality through which scholars have studies them. What, then, can expressions and euphemisms like these tell us about the way informal economic and political activities are practiced and understood in different cultural and institutional contexts?

Academics, policy-makers, and third sector actors have until recently paid very little attention to local vocabularies of informality, preferring instead universal definitions of corruption which take little account of the socio-economic or cultural difference across time, space, and context (Haller and Shore 2005[1]). Paying attention to the use of local idioms for informal practices can provide a fruitful method for questioning such ‘one model fits all’ approaches to investigating informal activities by allowing for a nuanced, case-specific approach to the phenomena. Because they often take place in the ‘grey zones’ which exist between the legal and illegal, and the moral and immoral, language and gesture are important vehicles for expressing that which must remain unsaid (Brković 2015[2]). Taking local expressions and uses of language seriously can thus provide greater insight into the ‘knowing smiles’ and ‘open secrets’ (Ledeneva 2011[3]) through which various forms of official and unofficial exchanges operate, as well as the spaces of ‘productive ambivalence’ created by such transactions (Stan 2012[4]). As such, they can be an effective tool for studying not only the socio-economic and political context in which these practices take place, but the manner in which the economy itself is imagined, expressed, and contested by policy-makers and citizens alike. Finally, by situating vernacular idioms within their wider communicative context of embodied expressions – including gestures, jokes, local forms of gift-giving, and kinship idioms – we can appreciate the particularity of different traditions and language ideologies that shape the ways in which people act, and make valuations and judgments (Henig and Makovicky 2016[5]; Lambek 2010[6]).

Although they reveal considerable variation in approaches and attitudes to informal practices, local euphemisms from across the world all have one thing in common: an aesthetics of deception. They work to deflect attention from a corrupt practice or minimise its importance. Whether it happens on the street, or in the boardroom, informality 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 Azerbaijani, the word commonly used for bribe (hörmət) is inter-changeable with the word for respect. An official requesting a bribe (hörmətimi elə) will therefore ask you to ‘do him a favour’ or ‘pay him some respect’. In many regions, what is technically ‘illegal’ may in fact be acceptable or even moral. In China, for example, health-care workers and government officials might 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’ (‘spasibo v karman ne polozhish’). The language of bribery is also closely related to that of gifting. In Hungary, doctors and nurses can expect a ‘gratuity’ (hálapénz) from their patients in the form of an envelope containing money, while in Slovakia the term pozornosť denotes a token of appreciation given in dealings with officials, including public services such as health and education. In Poland, gifts in kind turn a faceless bureaucrat into an ‘acquaintance’ (znajomość) who may be able to ‘arrange things’ (załatwić sprawy) for you in the future. Such expressions tell us two things. One is that these ‘tokens of gratitude’ are not just payments, they are about making friends in the right places. Another is that people excuse their own behaviour as altruism while accusing others doing the same of showing unfair or illegal favouritism.

Like beauty, then, financial and moral corruption exists in the eye of the beholder. Popular phrases used for speaking about corruption are often poetic or metaphorical. Some make reference to unmarked envelopes and other means of concealment. 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 emphasize movement. In Hungary, ‘oiling money’ (kenöpénz) is paid to officials to grease the wheels of bureaucracy, while the Russians know it is sometime necessary to put something on the palm of an official’s hand (‘polozhit na ladon’ or ‘dat’ana lapu’) in order to move things along. Other phrases work to deflect attention from a corrupt action or to minimize its importance. The Swahili expression kitu kidogo (‘something small’) is a good example of this. In the 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. In sub-Saharan Africa, customs officers ask for l’sk for du carburant (‘petrol money’). The Brazilian term for a bribe – a ‘little coffee’ (um cafezinho) – also doubles as the term for a tip in the conventional sense. 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’ thus carries the suggestion that the bribe will be shared with others.

In other words, euphemisms allow people to talk about corruption in terms of morally positive actions such as sharing, tipping, or even charity. Some expressions – such as ‘beans for the kids’ – appeal to the charity of the victim by claiming a bribe will be passed onto someone else. Indeed, across the globe, many euphemisms draw on local traditions of food provisioning and cooking, as the entries on ‘feeding’ in Russia (kormlenie) and ‘eating’ in Tanzania (kula) in this encyclopaedia show. In Kenya you might be stopped by traffic policemen and asked to contribute to ‘tea for the elders’ (‘chai ya wazee’ in Swahili). In North Africa, you may be stopped and asked by the traffic police to sponsor their next kahwe, or coffee. In Turkey, the police would rather you give them ‘cash for soup’ (çorba parası) - soup is traditionally eaten at the end of a night of heavy drinking. The phrase ‘a fish starts to stink at the head’ (‘balık baştan kokar’) also comes from Turkey, reminding us that petty bribes at street-level are often matched by greater corruption at the top of organizations and institutions. In the same vein, Mexican officials looking to earn a kickback for arranging a business deal will demand they are given ‘a bite’ (una mordida). This seemingly universal use of metaphors which connect petty corruption with food indicates the degree to which such practices are connected to both a pragmatic need for survival, as well as an obligation to share or distribute a windfall with friends and relatives.

Finally, large-scale corruption and fraud has its own vocabulary, often created by the media. ‘Cash for questions’ in British politics 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. The term Fimi Media (detailed in this volume) emerged in Croatia from a political scandal surrounding the marketing agency of the same name, and has come to refer to any misuse of public funds and power by political parties in the country. 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 15 million Fts., the size of Mr Balogh’s original bribe. In the Czech Republic, the terms ‘little carps’ (kapříci) and ‘fish’ (ryby) were used as coded language during a large corruption scandal in Czech football. In communication between the managers, referees and players a ‘little carp’ also operated as a unit of measurement, meaning 1,000 CZK per ‘fish’. Indeed, even for established criminal gangs, references to food and animals can provide a convenient vehicle for secret communications. When several members of the Italian Cosa Nostra were arrested in the summer of 2015, it was revealed that they had communicated with the mafia boss Matteo Messino Denaro via coded messages left on a farm in western Sicily. ‘I have put the ricotta aside for you, will you come by later?’ read one, and ‘The sheep need shearing’ read another.

See also


  1. Haller, Dieter and Shore, Cris. 2005. Corruption: anthropological perspectives. London: Pluto Press.
  2. Brković, Čarna. 2015. ‘Management of ambiguity: favours and flexibility in Bosnia and Herzegovina’, Social Anthropology/Antropologie Sociale, 23(3):268-282.
  3. Ledeneva, Alena. 2011. ‘Open Secrets and Knowing Smiles’, East European Politics and Societies, 25(4): 720-736.
  4. Stan, Sabine. 2012. ‘Neither commodities nor gifts: post-socialist informal exchanges in the Romanian healthcare system’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 18(1): 65-82.
  5. Henig, David and Makovicky, Nicolette. (eds.) 2016. Economies of Favour after Socialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. Lambek, Michael. 2010. Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action. New York: Fordham University Press.