At last - an explanation for 'bunga bunga'

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The phrase "bunga bunga" has become inextricably linked with the private life of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, and for those who have puzzled over its origins an intriguing new explanation of its meaning has been offered.

Image source, Rex Features
Image caption,
'I am bunga bunga,' says 36-year-old German actress Sabina Began

The comical-sounding phrase made its first appearance back in October, when 17-year-old Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug - who calls herself Ruby - said she had attended "bunga bunga" parties with other women at Mr Berlusconi's villa in Milan.

Italian newspapers immediately scrambled to find out its origins.

The finger of blame was initially laid upon Mr Berlusconi's friend Col Muammar Gaddafi, with allegations of parties hosted by the Libyan leader involving "harems" of young Western women.

Then stories circulated claiming the phrase owed its origins to a bawdy joke, which Mr Berlusconi claimed was one of his favourites.

Then this week Sabina Began, German actress and friend of the Italian prime minister, told Sky Italia that she herself was bunga bunga.

"'Bunga bunga' is simply my nickname," the 36-year-old said.

It's a credible-sounding explanation: "Began" and "Bunga" are not so different, and the repetition gives it a more informal, nickname-like quality.

"Everyone thinks: 'My God! What does that mean?" she is quoted as saying. Ms Began went on to explain that it was she who had organised the parties for Mr Berlusconi.

The expression has quickly become part of the Italian vocabulary, says Italian journalist Annalisa Piras, even though no-one really knows what it means.

The theory that it features in Mr Berlusconi's favourite joke is a popular one, she says.

The joke isn't new - it can be found on the internet Urban Dictionary - but in Italy it has been given a political twist. It goes like this:

Two of Mr Berlusconi's political opponents are captured by an African tribe. They are asked whether they would prefer to die or undergo bunga bunga. The first one opts for bunga bunga, and is immediately subjected to a sexual assault by members of the tribe. The second one, who now grasps what "bunga bunga" means, says he would prefer to die. To which the chief of the tribe replies: "Okay - death by bunga bunga."

Ms Piras says the term is now well embedded in the Italian language. "Bunga Bunga City" refers to Mr Berlusconi's world, the phrase is a popular twitter hashtag, and it even inspired a song performed on Italian television to the tune of Shakira's Waka Waka World Cup anthem.

The phrase itself is not new. One of the oldest recorded references dates back to 1910 and another African-themed joke.

The infamous Dreadnought hoax was dreamed up by aristocratic joker Horace de Vere Cole, who contacted the British Admiralty pretending to be the Emperor of Abyssinia. He informed officials that he wished to inspect the Home Fleet while on a forthcoming visit to Britain.

After enlisting some friends - artists from the Bloomsbury group, including writer Virginia Woolf - to masquerade as his entourage, he turned up at the navy's state-of-the-art ship, the Dreadnought.

Officials, taken in by the dark stage make-up, false beards and oriental regalia, treated the group to an official civic reception.

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Image caption,
Virginia Woolf (far left) joins Horace de Vere Cole (far right) in the 'bunga' hoax

They were reported to have cried "Bunga, bunga!" while marvelling at the ship. An account of the visit plus a picture were sent to the Daily Mail newspaper - probably by Cole himself.

Virginia Woolf said later that when the real Emperor of Abyssinia arrived in London weeks later, wherever he went, ''the street boys ran after him calling out bunga, bunga!"

The term reappeared at the end of World War I, after HMS Dreadnought sank a German submarine. According to retired Royal Navy captain Jack Broome - in his book Make Another Signal - the congratulatory telegram read: "BUNGA BUNGA".

The Dreadnought hoax is certainly not the inspiration for the current use of the phrase - but Mr Berlusconi may intend the phrase to have African connotations, says Tony Thorne, editor of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.

"The sound of it is crude and infantile. It is almost like a racist Africanism - some kind of colonial imagined tribal ritual of sexual abandon," he says.

"It has a racist, imperialist quality to it - like a phoney African word, like 'wonga'.

"It's so naughty and childish, it goes very nicely with the image that I think Mr Berlusconi wants to cultivate, as comic and absurd."

Ms Piras says that usage of the phrase in Italy has brought to a new level Mr Berlusconi's image as "jester-in-chief".

"He has managed to capture in a slogan the imagination of many of his male compatriots, and the utter contempt of almost every Italian woman."

The phrase "bunga bunga" exists in other languages - in Filipino, it is slang for something "hot" or fashionable, in Indonesian it means flowers.

But, for now, it has an association with the Italian prime minister and the current political scandal - or "bunga bunga-gate", if you will.