Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The dubious importance of cultivating facial hair: the word “bizarre”

Students learn to begin their papers with an introduction and end with a conclusion. The puny body is left to grow between those two boundary marks. I have never seen much use in this rigid scheme. However, today I have no choice but to follow this pattern and will write a long introduction. Most etymological dictionaries appear in installments. The problem is that by the time the work reaches the last letter, the author knows so much more than at the beginning that numerous earlier etymologies must be rewritten. The great Walter W. Skeat added a list of corrections to the first edition of his English dictionary, and in at least one case (at bless) wrote that his explanation was completely wrong (!), because soon after the appearance of the installment with the letter B, he had read an article by Henry Sweet and accepted his hypothesis. Whether Sweet guessed well is another matter. Sigmund Feist, the author of a monumental Gothic etymological dictionary, suggested that his work needed revision every twenty years. He was right.

I am saying all this because on October 26, 2011, I posted an essay on the origin of the word bigot. If at that time I had known all I now know about the history of bizarre, I would have written it somewhat differently, and part of my reasoning would have been more convincing. A popular but probably wrong etymology of bigot refers to a mustachioed man (fortunately, I did not share it), and, according to an equally popular and equally wrong etymology of bizarre, the root of this adjective should be sought in Basque bizar “beard.” As regards bigot, for a long time, we were advised to compare it with Spanish hombre de bigote, literally, “moustached man,” that is, “man of spirit.” (Note that the Basque word is bizar; the form bizzarra, cited in many sources, is this noun with an article.)

Obviously, a very courageous person. (Image by Nonsap Visuals)

Hair and masculinity are perennial twins. Numerous examples occur in the Bible (remember Samson and the fact that some Old Testament men “were sent to Jericho,” to wait for their beards to grow to respectable lengths). The Icelandic word skeggi “bearded” (related to English shaggy) became a proper name. The great god Thor was also depicted with a gigantic beard. All that is true. Yet bigot hardly refers to moustache, and bizarre has, it appears, nothing to do with beards. Let it be remembered that both bigot and bizarre are words “of unknown etymology,” or, to put it differently, there is no consensus on their origin. Several very old etymologies of bizarre did not go beyond fanciful guesses: from a combination of two Latin words, from Arabic, and from an ethnic name. Even in the middle of the nineteenth century, few philologists remembered those conjectures. Yet, in principle, those “pre-modern” scholars searched where we still do.

One more thing should be said before my “proem” (or preamble, if you prefer) comes to an end. With few exceptions, most etymologists are experts in only one area. To be sure, there were a few universal linguists, such as Jacob Grimm, Antoine Meillet, and James A. H. Murray, but they are exceptions. Yet a language historian working with the vocabulary of English constantly runs into words of Romance origin and is expected to say something about them. Even the Germanic field is vast, and someone who feels perfectly comfortable in Old English (like the already mentioned Henry Sweet) probably knew and knows less about Old High German, Old Norse, and so forth. The god of etymology is in the details, and Romance etymology is as broad as Germanic (which is my field). In Romance, I depend on the opinions of French, Spanish, Italian, and other experts, and, if I risk saying something about bizarre, it is only because I have probably read all there is on this word and because my associations with Germanic may be of some use to specialists in Romance. I’ll be grateful for their opinions and suggestions. End of the introduction.

Bizarre! (Image by Philippe Wagneur, Natural History Museum of Geneva)

English bizarre was borrowed from French in the seventeenth century. Almost identical forms have been recorded all over the Romance-speaking world, but the senses of the cognates match partially. The French adjective bizarre (known in books since 1533) means “peculiar, eccentric, strange,” as it does in English, though earlier, it also meant “brave.” Italian bizzarro (with voiced zz, as in English adze) yields the same meanings (“strange, odd, whimsical, eccentric”). By contrast, Spanish and Portuguese bizarro (in Spanish texts, since 1569) means “gallant, courageous, grand, splendid.” As regards meaning, only the Spanish adjective matches its Basque putative source (in Basque, the connection between beard and courage needs no proof). Therefore, the conclusion that the source of the Romance word should be searched for in Basque, makes perfect sense. But, to use James A. H. Murray’s favorite phrase, this conclusion is at odds with chronology.

In Italy, the word was known to Dante. It meant “fiery, furious, impetuous” and referred to the Florentine spirit. Around the same time, its lookalike occurred as the proper name (nickname?) Pizzarro. It happens with some regularity that a certain word emerges first as a proper name and only then as a regular noun or adjective. Such words tend to have a strong slang-y tinge, because nicknames were often, if not regularly, humorous, derogatory, and obscene. (Therefore, nicknames are our main window into medieval slang.) The verb sbizzarrire (approximately, “to push, thrust”) occurred around the same time. The chronological gap is astounding: in Italy, the word was known at least two and a half centuries before it reached Spanish, Portuguese, and French. For this reason, the great Spanish etymologist Joan Corominas concluded that the homeland of the Romance adjective was Italy, from which it spread to other languages.

Joan Corominas, a famous Spanish lexicographer. (Image by Generalitat de Catalunya, Departament de la Presidència)

If Corominas was right, the Basque etymology falls to the ground, and indeed, at present, no one derives bizarre from Basque. Another casualty of this etymology is the suffix –arro: if it is not from Basque, how did it come into being? The multitude of partly incompatible senses is also odd, whatever the origin of the adjective. If the initial meaning was “fiery, impetuous, unrestrained,” “brave” sounds natural, but “peculiar, eccentric, whimsical”? In French, bizarre crossed the paths of bigarré, “variegated; motley,” another adjective of unknown origin (also slang?). Dante’s word sounds like an epithet typical of a warlike, aggressive attitude, and “brave” is close. But the derivation of Modern Italian “strange, eccentric” from “fiery, impetuous” needs special pleading.

Next week, I’ll briefly examine some other etymologies of this intractable word and later offer my own suggestion, though, as already mentioned, I realize that only a very foolhardy Germanic etymologist will dare walk where the best Romance specialists tread (they have to!) but stumble.


Feature image: Farinata degli Uberti, fresco by Andrea del Castagno

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Am I jumping the gun? I recall from early childhood the schoolboy slang ‘beezer’. There was even a comic with that name. Could that be related? I am put in mind of persian ‘buzurg’.

  2. M.A. Rogers

    “…the source of the Romance word should be searched in Basque”… surely “searched FOR” or “sought”? Someone has to correct the corrector.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    “Blizzard” is a hard one.

  4. OUPblog team

    Thank you for flagging this typo, M.A. Rogers; it has now been updated. With best wishes, the OUPblog team.

Comments are closed.