The Person Behind the Word: Chauvinism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn the modern world, particularly in the #MeToo generation, when we hear someone called a “chauvinist” we are actually thinking of male chauvinism — defined by as “a male who patronizes, disparages, or otherwise denigrate females in the belief that they are inferior to males and thus deserving or less than equal treatment of benefit.” However, this is the secondary meaning of chauvinism. To understand the primary and original meaning of the world, let us meet Nicolas Chauvin, a French soldier who was regarded as  the village clown, a buffoon — to put it mildly.

In his authoritative book on eponyms, Human Words, legendary lexicographer Robert Hendrickson tells the fascinating story of Chauvin: “Nicolas Chauvin of Rochefort, a French soldier of the First Republic and Empire under Napoleon… was wounded 17 times while serving with La Grande Armee. Retired when he was so scarred that he could fight no more, he received a medal, a ceremonial saber and a pension of 200 francs a year as compensation for his wounds. Instead of growing bitter… Chain became an idolator of [Napoleon]; even after Waterloo and [his] exile, he spoke of little but the infallibility of his hero and the glory of France. [Chauvin eventually] became a laughingstock in his village for his excessive zeal on behalf of a lost imperial cause, his lack of common sense, and his mad demonstrations of loyalty and patriotism.” Chauvin’s foolish behavior caught the attention of two French dramatists, Charles and Jean Cogniard. Chauvin inspired the character of the same name in the Cogniard’s comedic play La Cocarde ticolore [The Tricolor Cockade; a cockade is a rose-shaped ribbon worn on a hat as a badge of party or office] that premiered in 1831. In the play, the character of Chauvin declares: “Je suit français, je suis Chauvin.” [“I am French; I am Chauvin.”] The ridicule of Chauvin did not end with that play; Hendrickson continues: “The play truthfully represented Chauvin as an almost idolatrous worshipper of Napoleon and was followed by numerous comedies by other authors caricaturing at the old soldier… As a result, the French word became chauvinisme… synonymous with fanatical, unreasoning patriotism and all that such blind, bellicose worship of national prowess implies.”

So the primary definition of a chauvinist is fanatical, aggressive patriotism — buffoonist in nature. The definition of chauvinism took on a different meaning in the 1960s, when feminists introduction the term “male chauvinism” to refer to pigheaded males who believed that women were inferior to men. Eventually the term was shortened to simply “chauvinism.”

There is a word, however, that refers to the original meaning of chauvinism that did not change in meaning over time: jingoism. Jingoism was coined by George Holyoake, an Independent British radical, in a letter that he wrote to the Daily News in 1878. The word was derived from a British drinking song from the late 1800s that urged England to prevent the Russian Army from invading Constantinople during the Russo-Turkish War. The song included these lyrics: “We don’t want to fight, yet by Jingo if we do / We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men / And the money too.”

So the next time you hear of someone called of chauvinist, think of the original chauvinist, Nicholas Chauvin, the ridiculous buffoon of Rochefort.

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For further reading: Human Words by Robert Hendrickson
Tawdry Knickers and Other Unfortunate Ways to Be Remembered by Alex Novak