August 21, 2015

The Precious Language

17-18th century French salon
Once upon a time (during the 17th century, to be more precise), in France, lived a group of women who, tired of the crude jokes played at the royal court(1), took it upon themselves to prove they had just as much, if not more, wit than their so-called "stronger sex" counterparts.

That's when the salon was created, where the ladies playfully dueled with their quick and often satirical words, where they discussed such topics as trial marriages, and even divorce (would anyone be shocked they were for it?), and of courtly love(2), but also developed a particular kind of language, Le Langage Précieux, that had to follow certain rules such as, for instance, the fact that one couldn't call body parts by their actual names. And that tendency spread to other, if not all expressions, to the point that a dictionary would have to be used to understand them all.

Madeleine de Scudéry
famous Pr
Here are a few examples:

  • Bed = Morpheus's empire
  • Brain = the sublime
  • Candles = the sun's supplement
  • Cheeks = the thrones of modesty
  • Cold = the nose's defluxion
  • Death = the all-powerful
  • Eyes = the soul's mirrors
  • Fan = a zephyr
  • Melancholia = a somber spirit/soul
  • Mirror = graces' counselor
  • Music = ears' paradise
  • Rain = the third element falling
  • Secret = friendship's seal
  • Shadows = the sun's daughters
  • Sighs = air's children
  • Swimming = to visit the naiads
  • War = chaos's daughter
  • Wind = the invisible

Quite the mouthful, don't you find? How would you like to have to speak that way all the time? Do you think it could incite people to think more before they speak (in which case I should probably jump on that bandwagon!)?

Marquise de Sévigné
A lady who loved words and one who got to
live the "joyhood" of early widowhood
(1) Ex: men would present a chair for a lady to sit on, then the moment she did, pull it away so she would fall down backwards and expose the whole word to her nether regions (since it was customary back in those days not to wear any underwear).
(2) Most of these ladies' marriages had not been of their choice*, and the ladies often found the subsequent carnal love to be quite...tasteless. And having vivid imaginations and a sense of the dramatic, they chose to dream of great loves but only live platonic ones (the fact that one woman out of two died of childbirth in those times would probably incite them to the latter).
*Majority back in those days and until the revolution didn't happen until 25. Until then, women were subjected to their parents' or spouses' wills, with usually very little say in the matter. So widowhood, especially for wealthy women, was a highly desirable state, especially if they happened to be independent-minded.

It's also interesting to note that fairy tales became hugely fashionable at these salons, where the heroes, still living as shepherds and shepherdesses, actually saw their origins elevated to the ranks of nobility, something even their poor surroundings couldn't overcome.

Other side note, that period is also when the Map of the Land of Tenderness was first traced!


  1. Oh, Alessa, you certainly remember forced oscillations of linear systems. When the frequency of the forcing is equal to the natural frequency of the system, you get the strongest response. The trend to use euphemisms, periphrases, etc., etc. - to sum it in a few fords: the trend of politically-correct speech - is my hot-button issue.

    We are not allowed to say "weakness" any more, we should say "area of potential improvement", we are not allowed to use the term "difficulty", it must be "challenge", and so on. Why do people tend to think that when we change the language, we change the underlying reality? Words are just words.

    I have a dear friend of mine, a university professor, with whom I had a heated discussion of politically correct speech in academia. She quoted numerous studies that show that the ongoing campaign to end "improper speech" on campuses brings results. Yes, students use improper speech less and less. But is that what we are fighting for? We should be fighting against racism, ageism, sexism, etc., not against saying certain words. The underlying reality does not magically change with changing words. People are exactly as racist as they used to be, but they are now (largely) more careful when they speak. She agreed that, unfortunately for her argument, there are no studies that would show that people's deeply seated views have changed. So she is wrong, unless the goal (I hope this is not true) has always been not to change people's beliefs but just to change their speech.

    Again we come to the key issue: words are just words. They are communication tools but they are also simulation, dissimulation, and miscommunication tools.

    When I say to my subordinate "working as a team member is certainly one area of your potential improvement", they know that I mean that they are a lousy team member. What did change, other than the words? Nothing. We both demonstrated some schooling, we simulated politeness, but the reality remains the same.

    Thank you for the incendiary topic. Maybe the next time I will ramble about how using periphrases means bad writing.

    1. I agree with you on the whole PC issue. Of course, I do feel that when you're aspiring to a certain career, politics for instances (although the latest trends would seem to disprove this), you are trying to represent the whole population, and therefore you should be mindful of that. But society's taken it to such an extent, that I feel it's made it worse. I feel that, instead, being PC has forced many people to be forced to consider how different s/he is to whomever s/he is speaking about, therefore putting up even more of a barrier between the two individuals. Because you're forced to pause, and think about what makes the other person different, whereas at one point you might not even have thought about those differences at all, or as something trivial.
      Perhaps Moliere would have had a quick about writing about how "precious" our society's become now, eh?

      PS: Yes, I do remember the forced oscillations of linear systems!