Holidays I am away. If you wish to, by all means respond to this issue as described in Section 5 below, but it is unlikely that I shall be able to respond personally. You may spot that this week’s items are once again updated versions of ones from my bestselling book Port Out, Starboard Home, published in 2004. Normal service will be resumed next week.
Poltroon was one of the nineteenth century’s favourite insults, meaning an utter coward, often preceded by adjectives such as base or wretched. Stories of the more sensational kind preferred stronger words:
“If you are not, after all,” resumed the duke, “the veriest coward and most lily-livered poltroon in all his majesty’s dominions, follow me into that carriage, Prince.”
Sylvester’s Eve, By William Henry Farn, published in Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine in 1843. Lily-livered poltroon became a cliché, later to be mocked by P G Wodehouse.
In the eighteenth century its origin was widely believed to be that suggested by an eminent French classical scholar of the previous century, Claudius Salmasius. He theorised that the word derived from medieval longbowmen. One who wished not to risk his skin in combat had only to make himself incapable of drawing a longbow by cutting off his right thumb. In Latin, pollice truncus meant maimed in the thumb; Salmasius asserted that this had become corrupted into the French poltron.
In the nineteenth century this wildly inventive view was no longer believed. Scholars noted instead that in French — and also in the obviously related Italian poltrone — the word didn’t just mean a coward but also someone who wallowed in sloth and idleness. This led them to believe that it originated in Italian poltro, a couch, an etymology respectable enough to be cited in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Today’s Oxford etymologists are sure both stories are wrong. They point instead to the classical Latin pullus for the young of any animal, particularly a young domestic fowl or chicken. It’s the source also of pullet and is related to poultry and — more distantly — to foal. The link is an ancient reference to the notoriously timorous and craven behaviour of farmyard fowl.
So a poltroon is chicken. How appropriate.
The classic Cinderella story remains so widely known that the phrase glass slipper still achieves instant recognition. It is sometimes used as an emblem of appropriateness:
It is also back in its original frame, which was found at Houghton with another picture inside it, but fits the Poussin as perfectly as a glass slipper fits a princess’s foot.
The Times, 10 May 2013.
Readers of the story have often been puzzled by the glass slippers, the ones that Cinders’s fairy godmother gave her to wear at the ball. Such fragile and potentially dangerous wear, unknown in everyday life, surely could not have been what was intended?
Succour for such doubters has been provided in the past century by writers who claimed that glass slipper was a mistranslation of the French story on which our modern versions are based. They say that the slippers were really made of vair, a type of fur that’s called miniver in English, not of verre, glass. Explanations along these lines have appeared at various times in standard works such as the Encyclopaedia Britannia, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and the Oxford English Dictionary. All were relying on what seemed to be an impeccable authority, that of Honoré de Balzac, who wrote in 1836 that the slippers were “without doubt of miniver”.
Alas, this attempt to prove the story to be a popular etymology is itself a popular etymology. All modern authorities are certain that the slippers were indeed made of glass, though this hasn’t prevented the false story continuing in circulation.
The frontispiece of Perrault's Histoires, reused for an English edition in 1763.
The Cinderella story is one of eight in Charles Perrault’s little book, whose title is Histoires ou contes du temps passé (“stories or tales of times past”). It was translated into English in 1729 by Robert Samber. The French and English versions both proved immensely popular. As well as the Cinderella story, it included those of Babes in the Wood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Tom Thumb, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty. The frontispiece shows an old woman sitting spinning and telling stories, with the caption “Contes de ma mère l’Oye” (“Tales of Mother Goose”) and so such children’s fairy tales are often called Mother Goose stories.
As with the others in his collection, Charles Perrault was recording an oral folktale current in France at the time, in this case an eternally resonant tale of unjust oppression followed by joyful reward that folklore experts have traced back through hundreds of versions as far as China in the ninth century. Perrault actually wrote of the fairy godmother that “elle lui donna ensuite une paire de pantoufles de verre, les plus jolies du monde” (“she then gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the world”), so Samber’s translation is correct. Perrault was following the tradition of giving Cinderella costly and impractical footwear. In 1812, the Brothers Grimm wrote a German version, Aschenputtel (“ash fool”), closer in spirit to the darker and much more violent traditional rendering; in theirs the slippers on successive evenings were of white silk, silver and gold.
As well as introducing the fairy godmother, Perrault seems to have invented the idea of making the slippers of glass. In doing so he had to leave out an important aspect of the traditional story, in which one ugly sister cut off her toes and the other her heel to try to fit their foot into the dainty slipper; they succeeded but were discovered and eventually blinded as a punishment. Their stratagems were found out when blood was seen to stain their stockings. As Perrault’s slipper was made of glass, their ghastly subterfuges would have been obvious at once. The Grimm brothers’ version is still known, though here muddled with Perrault’s:
The Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts do not fit the economic weather Salmond needs to make independence attractive and so, like the ugly sisters hacking off their toes to fit the glass slipper, the Scottish government publishes its own oil-price forecasts that meet the SNP’s economic vision.
Sunday Times, 24 Mar. 2013.
One difficulty with giving Cinderella fur slippers is that they sound much too grandmotherly and everyday. A princess could not possibly wear anything so homely. Gold slippers certainly fit the bill, but the glass ones illustrate Cinderella’s delicate nature especially well. She would have had to be physically light and dainty to be able to wear them without shattering them.
And, after all, this is a fairy story.
• Richard Beal, Colin Houlden and Meg Kingston all noted this sentence in a BBC report of 4 September about a new super-prison: “Last year around 19,140 inmates on average were made to share a cell designed for one person.”
• Anne Hickley found this in her local paper, the Watton and Swaffham Times, on 11 September: “Friends and family joined together this weekend to remember a Watton teenager who died suddenly as a hockey club stand was opened in her honour.” [She actually died three years ago.]
• A headline on the Globe and Mail website of 1 September was sent in by Tom Kavanagh: “Canadian Pacific navy fleet severely hampered without damaged ships”. [Replace without by as a result of.]
• “An impressive feat, even when conscious,” remarked Rus Stolling about an item on the Fox News site on 7 September: “A wild bull elk gored a shepherd in the mountains in eastern Utah, puncturing one of the man’s lungs, knocking him unconscious and forcing him to walk several miles for help.”
• Richard R Losch sent this report from The India Times of 29 August: “60-year-old Arun Kumar, a senior professor in the Electrical Computer Science Department of the Institution was found lying in a pool of blood at his flat with his throat slit by his maid servant yesterday, Haridwar SSP Rajiv Swaroop said. Though the cause of his death is being probed, the possibility of a suicide or murder cannot be ruled out, he said.”
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2013. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this newsletter in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.
Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.
If you have enjoyed this newsletter and would like to help defray its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.