Qwertyman No. 6: The Extraordinary Vice Mayor Koo

Qwertyman for September 12, 2022

“PAPA, PAPA! What does ‘consanguinity’ mean?” 

“Consang-what?” Vice Mayor Edison Koo was busy with his cellphone, negotiating his cut from the new bridge they were putting up in Barangay Tullahan. It annoyed him that Mayor Baloloy was going to make double, despite the fact that all the mayor did was to sign the papers while he had to meet with the contractor at a popular girlie joint in Manila—not that he minded the female company.

“Consanguinity. C-O-N-S-A-“

“I can spell it!” VM Koo knew he wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box—he had passed the bar on his third try, after much coaching from his friends and a novena to St. Jude the Apostle—but he could still remember what “consanguinity” meant and how to spell it. He had stumbled on a question about wills, trusts, and estates that involved consanguinity in his second bar exam, which was why he had to study it extra hard for his next retake. 

“So what does it mean, Papa?” At thirteen, Lawrence was about seven years past being cute and was just being pesky at the worst possible times, but Edison had plans for the boy’s political future and wanted to impress him with his knowledge. “Consanguinity” was easier to explain than to spell, Edison thought with a triumphant smile. 

Facing a mango tree, he recited a memorized Civil Service Commission pronouncement to impress himself with his knowledge: “Under Section 79 of the Local Government Code of 1991, the prohibition against nepotic appointments extends to the appointing or recommending authority’s relatives within the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity, such as first cousin or first cousin-in-law.” He turned to Lawrence and said, “Does that answer your question?”

“No,” said the boy, fiddling with his cellphone, “but never mind. I found it on Google. It means ‘being descended from the same ancestor.’ So if my Science teacher says we all came from apes, that’s consanguinity? All monkeys are my cousins?”

“Weeell…. If the monkey can show a valid NSO-certified birth certificate that can prove the relationship, why not?” VM Koo congratulated himself for his clever answer; the boy had to think his dad was a genius, to follow in his footsteps and inherit his musty law books. “Why are you asking, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be going to the mall with your friends? I gave you some money—” A mall—the town’s first—had opened six months earlier, a sure sign of the place’s progress, as a consequence of which the mayor was able to acquire a new van for his wife and an SUV for himself. This was why Edison was convinced he had to run for mayor in the next election—not because Mayor Baloloy was a corrupt bastard, but because he, Edison J. Koo, Esq., was the much better, more highly qualified bastard.

“You know I don’t like hanging out with my friends, Papa,” said Lawrence. “I prefer to stay home and read books and to listen to the news about the war in Ukraine and climate change and all the things that will affect my future as a young Filipino citizen!”

Edison looked at his son more closely, looking for signs that Lawrence was gay; it was his mother’s fault, giving the kid all those books about endangered species and disappearing islands, when any healthy teenage boy should have been hanging out in malls watching the girls in shorts go by. “So what does that have to do with consanguinity?”

“Well, I came across this news report about a new law that will require public officials like you to disclose all their relatives linked to subversive organizations, up to the fourth degree of consanguinity….”

“Really? What for? Don’t those idiots have better things to do?” It infuriated the vice mayor that on top of the SALN—on which he had to very deftly dissimulate—another reporting requirement was going to be imposed on hardworking civil servants like him.

“What does ‘subversive’ mean, Papa?”

“Oh—it means someone who doesn’t like the government, people like me, and wants to bring it down!”

“You mean like Tita Rory?” Lawrence remembered her fondly for giving him books like Catcher in the Rye and The Little Prince.

Edison felt a wave of shame and guilt wash over him, which he tried not to show the boy, who picked it up anyway. Rory was his younger sister, who had been a troublemaker since high school as far as he was concerned, who never listened, who deplored and never supported his entry into politics, and who once even denounced him in the plaza as a crook. So he also publicly disowned her, calling her a madwoman, and cut off all communication, even when she left and vanished into the underground.

“Yes, like your Tita Rory!” Edison sputtered, barely able to say the name. His eyes bulged as he began to understand the import of “consanguinity.” “Dammit, even when she’s not here, she’s going to put me in trouble!” He was thinking ahead to the next mayoral race, to being accused of consorting with the enemy, and worse, of being a subversive himself, which was the most ridiculous thing, because he didn’t have a rebellious bone in his body. He even ticked off Rory once by calling Rizal stupid for having badmouthed the Spanish.

“I like the books she gave me,” said Lawrence, thinking of a little fox and a garden of roses.

“Burn them! They’re full of silly ideas that—that will turn you into a little red monster. You won’t believe in God, you’ll disobey authority, you’ll do all kinds of terrible things—” 

“Is stealing money from the people subversive, Papa? Tita Rory said—” 

“Your Tita Rory said a lot of crazy things! That’s why she’s—not here. She’s not one of us. Not anymore. I pray for her soul, but I firmly believe in the government’s anti-insurgency program! And I’ll make sure everyone knows that—that their humble servant, Vice Mayor Koo, is a staunch defender of democracy, of peace and order, and of the rule of law! You’ll be very proud of me, my son!”

Just then a text message arrived. The bridge contractor had agreed to throw in a free trip to Seoul for him and Mrs. Koo, with a “K-drama Location Tour” attached. Edison beamed. His wife loved “The Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” and although he hadn’t seen it himself—he preferred Vin Diesel movies—she was sure to love him for it, too.

Penman No. 428: Wenchworld

Penman for Monday, November 22, 2021

OKAY, SO The X-Files assured us “The truth is out there,” CSI showered us with “epithelials” and impressed “blunt force trauma” into our noggins, Narcos made it cool to be a “patron,” and The Blacklist (or what I’ve seen of this nine-season, 178-episode epic so far) keeps sending us back to the “post office” or some other “black site.” K-drama, on the other hand, will forever be memorable to me for its wanton use of the word “wench.”

I’m not confessing that I’m a K-drama addict—for that, you can indict my wife Beng, who also happens to be my bedmate, which means that whatever she watches, so must I. Vicariously, therefore, I have learned that it is possible in the K-Universe to go back and forth between North and South Korea by parachute or tunnel, and even to go back and forth between Joseon and the present by holding on to a pretty girl and falling over; that a family’s most precious heirloom, on which everyone’s happiness depends, can be its secret kimchi recipe; that tall and tiny hats maketh the man; that Korean mafiosi travel with at least 300 OOTDs, to be worn just once—plus, of course, someone to keep them immaculately pressed; and that kissing in the rain is better than kissing under energy-saving light bulbs.

But most of all, the K-Universe is peopled by men (half of whom seem to be “unfilial sons”) and women (the younger half of whom are “saucy wenches”). It’s the “wench” part that gets me, because it’s a word I haven’t heard since I was slogging through my grad-school classes in Elizabethan Drama more than thirty years ago. 

Most famously, of course, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio woos the intemperate Katherine: “Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate!” From Love’s Labours Lost, we get “The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen / As is the razor’s edge invisible.” The word is all over English in the 1500s and 1600s, embedded in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; Christopher Marlowe, in The Jew of Malta, has his character Barabas trying to brush away his sinful past when he is accused of fornication: “But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.”)

While we’re in this sort-of-scholarly mode, let’s look up “wench” to see what it was supposed to mean then. Etymonline.com gives us this block of information: 

“Late 13c., wenche ’girl, young woman,’ especially if unmarried, also ‘female infant,’ shortened from wenchel ’child,’ also in Middle English ‘girl, maiden,’ from Old English wencel, probably related to wancol ’unsteady, fickle, weak,’ from Proto-Germanic *wankila- (source also of Old Norse vakr’child, weak person,’ Old High German wanchal ’fickle’), from PIE *weng- ’to bend, curve’…. The wenche is nat dead, but slepith. [Wyclif, Matthew ix.24, c. 1380]. In Middle English occasionally with disparaging suggestion, and secondary sense of ‘concubine, strumpet’ is attested by mid-14c. Also ‘serving-maid, bondwoman, young woman of a humble class’ (late 14c.), a sense retained in the 19c. U.S. South in reference to slave women of any age. In Shakespeare’s day a female flax-worker could be a flax-wenchflax-wife, or flax-woman.”

Perhaps more helpfully, vocabulary.com tells us that “Wench used to mean young girl, so if you find someone describing a lovely wench in Shakespeare, it means a lovely girl. Wench comes from Middle English, and was a common word for girl, child, or servant. Over time it came to mean mainly serving girls, as in a bar wench, who serves drinks at a tavern. Eventually it came to mean prostitute. If you find wench in a love poem from the 16th century, think of it as an informal version of maiden. But if someone called you a wench last week, you should be insulted.”

Now, in the K-Universe, the use of “wench” transcends centuries, being equally useful in the period of the Three Kingdoms as it was under the Joseon dynasty, under Japanese annexation, and after the Korean War. (At a certain point, when you’ve watched hundreds of hours of K-drama—only because your wife is watching, mind you—you become something of an expert on Korean history, politics, and culture. I’ve even developed a taste for japchae, which I like to think of as Korean sotanghon.) It’s entirely possible for a Gangnam goon to call a confederate on his Samsung phone to say “Get rid of that insufferable wench!”

All that is probably because the Official Association of K-Drama Translators, at a crucial conference in Jeju, sat down to take up the word nyeon (“a term that refers to a female person in a degrading/derogatory manner”), with partisans debating fiercely between “bitch” and “whore.” The argument entered its second day, with tempers flaring and steel chopsticks dangerously stabbing the air, until the revered Dr. Sung Hyun-Lee, a fruit grocer by day and Confucian scholar and acupuncturist by night, woke up from his soju-assisted meditation and proposed the word “wench.” He had come across the word while watching Pirates of the Caribbean, and thought it perfect to describe a passing ship in the night.

Since all K-drama heroines can be wenches (as long as they have doe eyes, porcelain skin, and wispy hair—but wait, doesn’t that sound like all K-boys as well?), “wench” seems to have lost its pay-for-play connotations on Netflix, and now simply means “any pretty and young Korean woman who attracts and then annoys a nasty man—a cruel Joseon prince, a North Korean general, or a Seoul crime boss.” Problem solved.