Friday, March 23, 2007


When some time ago I discussed Mór Jókai and wondered about the exact meaning of the term "boktsatütün", languagehat and an anonymous reader were kind enough to provide the answer: "small bale of fine tobacco, tobacco wrapped in small bundles".
As much as I trust their expertise, it is always nice to get independent confirmation. This time, I found it on p. 114 of Scenes from the East. Through the Eyes of a European Traveller in the 1860s by the Hungarian orientalist Ármin Vámbéry (a.k.a. Hermann Bamberger, 1832 - 1913) . Though usually ranked among his many travelogues, this book is more of a sociological study of the peoples of Orient. As such, it offers many fascinating insights into the everyday lives of people of the Ottoman Empire. Just consider the titles of some of the chapters - "Women", "Food", "The Bath", "Festivals", "Schools" and "Tobacco and Drugs". It is in the latter that we find the following passage:

There is an old Hungarian proverb which refers to "smoking a pipe like a Turk", whose antiquity I would question, for those Turks who invited themselves so regularly to South-eastern Europe had not at the time been introduced to nicotine. It was only during the reign of Sultan Ahmad III that an edict was issued to curb the consumption of tobacco. Ironically, it is today precisely in the Ottoman Empire that tobacco is almost a cult. The king of tobaccos grows in Rumelia, native soil of the great Macedonian, mainly at a small place north-east of Thessaloniki called Yenije Vardar. The small yellow-brown plant is dried for weeks, even months, on its stem, then packed into small bundles (bogcha), and only after maturing for years in the merchant's warehouse do the connoisseurs of Stambul give it the name of ala gabek. The leaves are sliced into strips as fine as strands of silk, and are much valued in the Imperial Palace, the Sultan's harem, and not the least at the Porte, where the Privy Council carries out its important state duties in dense clouds of aromatic smoke.

Interestingly enough, in Slovak we still say that someone who smokes a lot "fajčí ako Turek" (smokes as a Turk) and same goes, as far as I know, for Czech and Serbian. Also of interest is the fact that the original text only says "a proverb; a folk saying" ("a közmondás"), nothing about just "Hungarian"...
Be that as it may, rest assured I will return to Ármin Vámbéry in the future. A fascinating fella, this one - linguist, tinker, sociologist, tailor, diplomat, soldier, spy. He advised Sultan Abdul Hamid II, was (so my buddy Emík tells me) best pals with Theodore Herzl and apparently knew Mór Jókai and Bram Stoker, too. And he's from the hood - born in Svätý Jur, raised in Dunajská Streda, studied here in Bratislava.

Scenes from the East. Through the Eyes of a European Traveller in the 1860s. - Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 1979 (an English translation of: Keleti életképek. - Budapest: Atheneum, 1876; available online here)
KHALIDI, Walid: The Jewish-Ottoman Lands Company: Herzl's Blueprint for the Colonization of Palestine.
Journal of Palestine Studies, XXII, no. 2 (Winter 1993), p. 30-47


Anonymous said...

The expression has spread further West: French has "To smoke like a Turk" (Fumer comme un turc). I distinctly remember reading a French comic strip as a child where the expression is used, with a footnote asking: "Why a Turk?". Glad to have finally learned the answer.

Anonymous said...

I'm the same anonymous who sent the note on "bohca" from the Redhouse dictionary. I'm afraid I have no particular expertise on Vambery, who was indeed a fascinating character, but I wanted to note that there was a biography published on him a few years ago:

Adler, Lory, and Richard Dalby. The Dervish of Windsor Castle. London: Bachman & Turner, 1979.

Additionally, I vaguely recall reading some interesting comments on him in a diary by the great Hungarian/Jewish Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher.

Languagehat said...

I'm looking forward to your further posts on Vámbéry, who was quite a character!

Anonymous said...

The expression has spread further West: French has "To smoke like a Turk" (Fumer comme un turc).

Interesting. I've never encountered it in German.

bulbul said...

now that is unexpected. I see that it even spread to Flemish - "rookt als een Turk". And there seems to be a number of other expressions involving members of this nation...

thanks for the info, I've already taken steps to acquire all biographies of Vámbéry available. Judging by the reviews, the one by Adler and Dalby is the most scholarly and reliable, if a bit outdated ("a few years ago", indeed. I was born in '79 :o). Steps have been made to consult the archives of the Foreign Office, too. We'll see what comes out of it.

Mattia said...

Also in Italy we say "fumare come un turco".

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