Les songes drolatiques de Pantagruel


From "Poemas del río Wang"

Published in: on July 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm  Comments (1)  

Three entomologists, three in corduroy

Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly-collecting activities are well known, but not everyone knows that the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the Franco-Belgian poet Henri Michaux were amateur entomologists.

Erik Satie, Henry David Thoreau, and George Sand were all known for wearing corduroy, but in Satie’s case it was called velours côtelé* and he was not blamed.  (No, “corduroy” isn’t the word in French, though the English word comes from French.) But Americans of that era regarded corduroy as Irish, and ladies were not supposed to wear corduroy or smoke cigars, so the other two did not get off so easily.

*And in Sand’s too,  but only Satie got away with it.

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 1:04 am  Comments (2)  

The etymology of hypocrisy

(Many thanks to my friends at Languagehat.com)

My puzzlement over the hypocritical octopus and the hypocritical ocean wave in Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer led me to an etymological investigation of the words hypocrite and hypocrisy (hypocrisie) in English,  French, Latin, and Greek (but not Hebrew.) It was actually sort of a wild goose chase, but I put in a lot of time into it and one of the privileges of obscure bloggers is to publish anything they want. This is probably my least interesting post ever, since most people aren’t interested in etymology and the ones who are have better things to read.

The word “hypocrite” and its derivatives trace back to the Greek. Neither the word nor the concept is found in Hebrew. The  word does not appear in the Septuagint, the Jews’ own Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Old Testament), though it does appear in a different Jewish translation of the Tanakh into Greek. When the word is seen in the KJV translation of the Old Testament  it translates, and possibly mistranslates, a word that simply means “godless” or “lawless”. (Whether it’s a translation or a mistranslation depends on the degree to which the Biblical Greek word’s meaning had diverged from its classical Greek meaning).

In classical Greek the word “hypocrite” means someone who is pretending to be or acting as someone else. It can be  negative, as in the case of a fraud, or neutral, as in the case of stage actors and public spokesmen.

The word appears many times in the Greek New Testament, often in the words of Christ.  This is problematic, since Jesus did not speak Greek and there doesn’t seem to be an Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent of the word. In only one case does this word clearly have its classical Greek meaning of “pretending”; in the others (and in the exceptional Jewish translation mentioned above) the Greek word seems to have acquired an additional meaning beyond just feigning and dissimulation, something more like “evil”.

Presumably the Greek word had evolved (perhaps under the influence of Hebrew and Aramaic). Conjecturally, if “hypocrisy” in the sense of “feigning” had come to be used mostly in cases when evil people were feigning goodness, then “evil” might become part of the definition.  Thus, “pretending to be good, but really evil inside” and simply “evil inside”, rather than “feigning”,  might have become the primary meaning of the word. However the restricted “feigning” meaning probably never quite disappeared — Godefroy cites an instance from Old French.

It seems pretty clear that the common European meaning of the word is derived (via the Vulgate) from Biblical and not classical Greek, though some scholarly writers may have occasionally deliberately reverted to the classical meaning. One source claims that the word came to English via Molière’s play Tartuffe, ou le Hypocrite, and while this is not true and is off by many centuries, it’s possible that in English the limited Tartuffian sense became dominant while the broader meaning survived in France. Even so, Hugo’s application of the word “hypocrite” to an octopus pretending to be a rock and to the murderous ocean wave feigning innocence does seem like quite a stretch.  But Hugo, being Hugo, could lay it on as thick as he wanted.



Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (1)  

Deadly Ernest

Miss Mary Augusta to Matthew Arnold: “Why, Uncle Matthew, oh why, will you not always be wholly serious?”

As we know, Europe during the 19th century was infested with a toxic seriousness from which there could have been no peaceful escape. Bourgeois ambition, bourgeois respectability, respect for the law, rigid notions of chastity and purity, exquisite refinements of class distinctions and of the cruelties of class, devout adherence to ideals both religious and secular, love of country, an ethic of self-sacrifice, a booming but ruthlessly competitive economy, sound fiscal policies, and efficient public administration ultimately led to two bloody and pointless (but well-organized and efficient) wars, and in 1914 the world as we would have liked to have known it came to an end, and we entered the world of blood and iron.

The name Ernst / Ernest can be used as a marker of this horrible seriousness. This name, which is derived from the Old High German eornest (“grimly serious, fighting to the death”) spread from Germany to England along with the Hanoverian dynasty (Georges I-III) and I think that it is fair to conclude that the seriousness did too, and that with due reservations it can be called The German Seriousness. (Earnest, it turns out, is an entirely different English word which was, in effect, treated as a different spelling of Ernest; and the name Ernest was taken to signify earnestness, and in fact earnestness certainly could include bloodthirsty military eornest-ness:  “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”)

French and British decadents and bohemians fought The German Seriousness as best they could, but there was no hope. Despite heroic offensives like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (whose protagonist is a dreadfully serious preacher’s kid named Ernest who slowly wises up during the course of the book), the cause of unseriousness was doomed from the start. In 1871 seriousness definitively gained the day in France, where Thiers had ten thousand or more fundamentally unserious Communards murdered, and by 1895, when Wilde was sent to jail and his life ruined,  the war had already been lost. One of the last victims of this horrible plague was Ernest Hemingway, who blew his head off  in 1960.

For bovious reasons the name Ernst disappeared from American life after 1917 or so, and Ernest and Earnest have been declining since the 50s and probably will fall out of the top thousand soon enough. How much we will gain from this is uncertain; the “life’s a joke” approach to the world characteristic of our present wise leaders  appears to be only marginally less horrible.


Published in: on March 13, 2010 at 6:53 pm  Comments (2)  

“Bousingot”: not in your dictionaries

The massacre of April 9, 1834.

(Recently I’ve been reading about French counterculturalists, avant-gardists, bohemians, and revolutionaries during the period 1830-1848, which is really the source of all counterculturalism since then. It’s a work in progress and this is a scrap of it. This is my fourth revision of this piece.)

Nerval et les Bousingots, Francis Dumont, La Table Ronde, 1958

The word bousingot, which designates certain French political and literary rebels during the period 1830-1835 (and which is seen twice in Hugo’s Les Misérables), was used as a political label only during that very brief period and cannot be found in my ten pounds of French dictionaries: as Hugo explains in his novel, it had replaced the word ” jacobin“, and a little later was itself replaced by the word  “demagogue”.

Luckily, ample materials exist on the internet for tracking down this word and its origins.  The word comes from sailors’ and farmer’s argot and was adopted by Les Jeunes-France of the Petit Cénacle,  a group of political and literary rebels of that era which included Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. Their enemies picked the word up to use against them, and the usage and the behavior it labeled both spread out into the greater society. Eventually it came to to designate more militant rebels (especially the students among them), and when these staged actual uprisings and brought heavy repression onto themselves, many of the original literary bousingots dropped the label. This use of the word survived as a historical reference to the rebels of that era, but the generic meaning “rebel” fell from use.

The “original meaning” of bousingot, reminds you of  cur in Flann O’Brien’s legendary  Old Irish Dictionary. “Bousingot” means manure, filth, a stable, a snuffbox, a dive bar, a whorehouse, a racket or hubbub, or a sailor’s hat.  Of these meanings, per Argoji,  only the “racket” / “whorehouse” meanings seem to have survived into the later nineteenth century, still as argot or slang.

Both in its base meaning and in its extended politico-cultural meaning the word “bousingot” is contested and aggressive, without a fixed referent and always looking for  new victims. Conjecturally, the history of this never-respectable word goes as follows.  To begin with, bousin meant stable or the floor of a stable, and the rare name Bousingot is like the English name Stabler.  (Nyrop gives many examples of this kind of -ot derivation.) By analogy bousin came to mean a low and dirty dive bars and whorehouses, especially on the waterfront,  and bousingot came to mean the rowdies who frequented such places,  their rowdiness, their hats, and even their nasty snuffboxes. Les Jeunes-France picked up the name in a jocular way, Gozlan made it famous with his satires, the word spread wider and was adopted  or applied to political demonstrators and rioters (especially the students among them), at which time the les Jeunes-France backed off. (In its extended cultural / political meaning the word could be either an accusation or a defiant and jocular self-description — which as often as not would later be disavowed). And finally, the word reverted to its rowdy dive bar meaning.

Altogether, an unstable and fluctuating word, but of a kind familiar in countercultural history, and a word whose career exemplifies the mutual dependency of counterculturalists and their bourgeois journalistic adversaries.

(This page has basically been a Google exercise. I started with Dumont’s book, of which I’d only read part, and proceeded to track the bousingots down using Google and Google Book. I was able to replicate a fair proportion of Dumont’s research and find out some things he hadn’t included. It’s been very satisfying and I will never understand people who badmouth the internet.


Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 4:40 am  Comments (6)  

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