Let them eat ‘merde’ – An Irishman’s Diary on the linguistic legacies of the French Revolution

Pierre Cambronne: a member of Napoleon’s “Old Guard” of elite veterans at Waterloo

Pierre Cambronne: a member of Napoleon’s “Old Guard” of elite veterans at Waterloo


The name of Dr Antoine Louis is almost entirely forgotten today, at least in these parts. But he invented something famous once, and for a short while it was even named after him, the Louisette.

We would probably have grown used to that in time, as a word for the device in question.

Instead of which, “Louisette” now somehow suggests a piece of period furniture – a dainty footstool perhaps. In the meantime, the invention has become associated with the name of another doctor, the man who merely argued for its use in a 1789 speech, Joseph Ignace Guillotin.

Like Louis, Guillotin was motivated by humanitarian concerns. He saw the machine as an instant and painless improvement on traditional methods of execution, which in living memory then had included the horribly botched hatchet job on a Hiberno-French nobleman, the Compte de Lally. Ironically, the imminent boom in decapitation services was to immortalise Guillotin’s name in connection with the new device. By the time he realised and protested, it was too late.

Guillotin is not the only eponym – someone whose name comes to stand for a people, place, or thing – to emerge from the French Revolution. Almost as well known today is Nicolas Chauvin, whose nationalistic fervour during the Napoleonic wars has since lent his surname to a range of blinkered world views.

Among other things, the original Chauvin is said to have been wounded 17 times in the service of his country. This would be even more impressive if he had ever existed, which historians doubt. He seems to have been a fictional creation of song and story, although he lives on in spirit wherever chauvinists congregate.

It is to the French too that we owe a word without which Ireland would struggle to get by, especially at this time of year. For just as we gave them the verb boycotter, they gave us the nouns bigot and bigotry, which, in a backhand compliment to Bastille Day are an indispensable part of Northern Irish life every mid-July.

Contrary to semi-popular belief, however, we do not get the terms from Jean Bigot, Napoleon’s minister for religion. Bigot-the-word long predated him, being traced back several centuries to Old French, where it seems to have been a derogatory nickname for the Normans.  

Some people have therefore surmised (wrongly, according to etymologists) that it arose from the Normans’ habit of swearing “by God”. And northern France has form in that kind of thing. The English oppressors of Joan of Arc’s time were called goddamns, while the American soldiers of the 20th century were sommobiches: a poetic version of their habit of saying “son of a bitch”. But tempting as the “by God” theory is, it’s not supported by evidence. Officially, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, bigot remains of “origin unknown”.

So, alas, does condom. Not that that has anything to do with the French Revolution, or with any revolution other than sexual. But there is a Gallic surname (one latter-day Condom, the 1980s rugby player Jean, used to have a prophylactic effect on Ireland’s attempts to win in Paris) and a town that could both be easily implicated in the invention.

After all, other countries are happy to defer to France’s special expertise in this area.  

One of condom’s best-known synonyms is “French letter”. But the same thing was also called the “Dutch cap” and the “English overcoat” (note the implication of worsening weather as you head north and west). And apart from a shadowy “Captain Condom”, reputed to have served in the court of King Charles II, no historic role model for the name, French or otherwise, has been found.

Getting back to Chauvin, a real-life counterpoint to the fictional Nicolas was Pierre Cambronne, who soldiered in many French campaigns of the era, including the ill-fated voyage to Bantry Bay in 1796, and was later a member of Napoleon’s “Old Guard” of elite veterans at Waterloo.

A legend arose there that, when asked to surrender, he uttered the splendid words: “La garde meurt et ne se rend pas!” (“The guard dies and does not surrender”). The less poetic version is that he said simply “Merde!” (“Shit!”) which, in this context, meant the same thing.  

For his part, he always denied saying either. But in time, the more elegant quotation found its way onto a monument in his memory. As for the less elegant one, it was commemorated in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and other literary works. And it made the general an eponym, of sorts. Afterwards, when euphemisms for “merde” were necessary, it became the “mot de Cambronne”.