Yes, this really happened.
The Pope, speaking Italian in his Sunday address, said “cazzo” when he meant “caso.” One word means “example.” The other is a vulgarity.
(It’s not technically the f-bomb, but it’s a rude set of syllables that can be used as equally convenient route for the same sentiment. Expletives in one tongue never map quite perfectly onto another.)
Foreign languages are minefields. You think you’re standing in solidarity with the people of Denmark, and it turns out that you’re saying, “I’m a Danish.” You were sure you had asked distinctly for jam, but it turned out that the word you used meant “contraceptive.” Ask someone if he’d like to meet your rooster, and you’re getting escorted off the premises of the elementary school. Do what your culture considers a polite wave, and suddenly a stranger is stepping out of his car to come knock your high beams out with a tire iron.
And the textbooks never cover it. All they do is produce an uncomfortable period of a few years, when, thanks to the instructional video that went with Chapter Two, you were convinced that the way to woo a French person was to sing to him about vowels (A-E-I-O-U/ I love you!/A-U-O-I-E/You love me!). Even after you cleared that up, you still thought that “chouette” was an acceptable thing to say.
These near-misses of understanding can go on across centuries. Look at that famous phrase from the Bible about how “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” People have argued about this for years. Going through the eye of a needle is hard. Is the word really ‘camel’? Could it be a large rope? Is it really the eye of an actual needle, or is it the popular nickname of a particularly narrow camel-gate?
There’s even a long religious history of fighting over vowels. Before the Council of Nicaea there was a vigorous battle over whether the term for Jesus was “homoousios” (being of the same nature as, in this case, God) or “homoiousios” (being of a similar nature). Sometimes a vowel isn’t just a vowel. We’re lucky it was just a mixed-up consonant this time, or the world could have years of heresy to deal with.
And when you’re an ambassador across languages and national borders, as the Pope is, something like this seems almost inevitable. What’s amazing is how well everything else has gone. It’s hard enough to deliver a public speech in a language you’ve grown up with. [Insert obligatory joke about President George W. Bush here.]
At least no birds were harmed this time.