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Scene from The Victrola book of the opera

Harlequin’s tricky name

I am picking up where I left off last week. In the post for August 26, 2020, I discussed some words that surround Harlequin on a dictionary page. He ended up among harlots, harangues, and the harrowing of hell. I also touched on the possible origin of some European words for “war,” and in a rather unexpected form war will return to us later. How could Arlecchino, this buffoon, a combination of naivete and shrewdness, stupidity and common sense, Columbine’s lover, a servant always in trouble for one reason or another, end up in such ungainly surroundings?

Full of tricks and pranks. (Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay)

Perhaps today most of us remember Harlequin from Leoncavallo’s opera, but he was known to Thomas Nashe, an important literary figure of the Elizabethan period, in 1590. In Padua, he entertained Italian spectators almost a century earlier. He soon migrated to France and retained his character as a wit and jester. It was from there that he made his way to England. His appearance has not changed over time: a close-fitting suit of triangular patchwork, a black mask concealing his face, and a soft black hat with its brim tilted up in the manner of a visor. Instead of a sword, he wields a baton (a bâton, if you prefer). He is immediately recognizable. Unlike Leoncavallo’s character, he never sings or speaks (and some mimes achieved greatness while impersonating him). It follows that he came to the theater world not from commedia dell’arte, with its famed art of improvisation, but from pantomime.

However, here we are mainly interested in Harlequin’s name, which has been discussed for a very long time. At least one thing is clear. Although Harlequin reached England from Italy via France, his old name must have begun with an h. The reason for this conclusion is not far to seek. Italian lost initial h very long ago. The English had no need to add it and would not have done so. After all, when they began to speak about Arlecchino, they did not turn him into Harlecchino! It follows that the original name was not Italian (or French, for that matter) but Germanic. Really? Really.

At least seventeen (!) etymons, or sources, of the mysterious name have been proposed (the number comes from a German dissertation that gives a survey of old scholarship). Only one of them hoped (and failed) to uncover an ancient buffoon at the beginning of the story. Rather, the gates of hell open before us in our search. It would be tedious to go over all the existing conjectures, but some are worth mentioning, because we keep running into them in later publications by amateurs. People are fond of offering etymologies before consulting the works of their predecessors and end up reinventing the wheel, often a broken and discarded wheel.

Long ago, those interested in our subject remembered that a nimble demon in Dante’s Inferno (xxi, 118) was called Alichino. The two names are close, and it is much more probable that Alichino is a garbled variant of Harlequin, rather than the other way around. I began my short survey with a devil, because that is where we will eventually end up. The infernal origin of Harlequin may sound almost fanciful to those who have not followed the development of this character, but as early as 1844, the great and incomparable Jacob Grimm, the founder of Germanic philology, a student of language, medieval literature, medieval laws, and myths, suggested that Harlequin is an alteration of Germanic hellequin “little hell” (-quin, like its other form –kin, would be a diminutive suffix). This etymology had at least one learned supporter in 1913, but both the form and the meaning (little hell?) Grimm reconstructed carry little conviction. Though my experience has taught me that Jacob Grimm was almost always right, his etymology of Harlequin won’t stand. I may add that Grimm offered his hypothesis without developing it (as was his wont). Anyway, he looked for the clue in the right direction.

Dante's Alichino
Dante’s Alichino, a distant scion of our hero. (Image by Gustave Doré via Wikimedia)

With some regularity the ghost of King Charles Quint appears in the studies of Harlequin. Charles V (1500-1558), Holy Roman Emperor, was a famous personality, a great fighter and traveler. Unfortunately, he also happens to be the father of Philip II, a notoriously cruel and narrow-minded monarch. Charles seems to have had the nickname Arlequin, “as he delighted in meddling, like Harlequin, in the affairs of others.” At one time, Max Müller, a renowned scholar of language and IndoEuropean antiquities, found this source of Harlequin’s name worth mentioning, while Walter W. Skeat called the connection a product of popular (that is, folk) etymology and was right. Indeed, the nickname only proves that in the sixteenth century, the word Harlequin was known far and wide. It says nothing about its origin.

Der Erlkönig
Erlkönig, the king of the elves. (Image by Carl Gustav Carus via Wikimedia)

An even greater temptation is the existence of Erlkönig, remembered from Goethe’s ballad and Schubert’s song. In it, a man rides through the forest, apparently, late at night, with a child who believes he hears and sees the king of that forest calling him, inviting him, promising him rich presents and the love of his daughters. The distracted father tries to explain to his son that it is only the wind or the mist, that there is no forest king. He flogs the horse, hurries, and finally reaches home, to find the child dead in his arms. The source of this plot is the Danish ballad Elveskud (that is, Elve-skud “Elf-shot”), one of many tales about the vindictive elves destroying people. The Danish text reached the German poet and philosopher Johann G. Herder in the form Ellerkonge (an assimilated form of Elverkonge), which he misunderstood as “Alder-King.” The mistranslation was perpetuated by Goethe. In the oldest version of the story, an elf-daughter keeps tempting the rider, not the rider’s son. There is nothing for Harlequin to do in this enchanted forest, but, curiously, we keep running into fear-inspiring creatures the moment we begin to chase Harlequin. Divine and demonic names often sound alike across the entire Eurasian continent and even across the whole world. The Turkic (and broader: Siberian) Erlik-khan, a demon of death, has been cited in connection with Harlequin, but, knowing nothing about that tradition, I’d rather not go so far afield.

In Old French, the word that interests us was spelled as harlequin and hellequin (both with minor variations). It survived in some French dialects as the name of the evil will of the wisp. In Dorset, England, harlican is or was an abusive term for a troublesome youngster. Its occurrence in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure was noticed long ago. (In Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, no other examples of this word appear.) It follows that the variation ll ~ rl in Harlequin’s name should be taken for granted. Above, I promised to dispense with quite a few guesses. Among those are the derivations of Harlequin from the proper names of some known characters and (this is an especially wild guess) from the name of the French town of Arles (remember Charles Bizet’s suite L’Arlezienne? Or perhaps Van Gogh’s Ladies of Arles? I grew up listening to the first and looking at the second).

Van Gogh Ladies of Arles
Ladies of Arles by Vincent van Gogh. (Image via Wikimedia)

As early as 1850, it was clear to the best-informed people that “harlequinades would seem rather to be derived from the wanton pranks of sprites than the coarse gambols of buffoons.” Very true, except that the pranks were not wanton and that they were not exactly pranks.

To be concluded.

Featured image: a scene from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci in The Victrola book of the opera, via Pixabay.

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