Tag Archives: Great French Lives

Great French Lives: Jean Nicot


posted by Simon Kemp

Jean Nicot has left his mark on both the French and English languages. He is, as you’ve already guessed, the man who gave his name to nicotine, the highly addictive, mood-altering substance that’s the essential chemical ingredient in cigarettes, cigars, snuff,  and those stick-on patches you use when you’re trying to give up the other ones.

‘How did Nicot come to give his name to this most dangerous of parasympathomimetic alkaloids?’ I hear you ask.

Because he was the man who introduced tobacco to the French court in the sixteenth century.

‘Was he then a swashbuckling adventurer, bringing exotic herbs and spices from far-off lands new-discovered across the Atlantic Ocean?’

Not exactly.

‘Where did he bring it back from, then?’


‘But the tobacco itself came from somewhere more exciting?’

From his back garden, actually.

‘Grown from seeds he got from…?’

A seed salesman.

‘Who got them from…?’




Jean Nicot (1530-1604) was a courtier at the court of King François II, who was sent as an ambassador to Portugal in 1559 to negotiate a marriage between the six-year-old king of Portugal and a five-year-old French princess. It didn’t go too well, and he was eventually forced to flee the country two years later.

Before he ran away, though, he had time to plant a crop of tobacco from some seeds bought from a Flemish merchant, and in 1660 he sent some dried, powdered tobacco leaves to the French king’s mother. He told her to get the king to snort the powder because it would cure his migraines. History does not record whether or not it worked.

Tobacco did, though, quickly become highly fashionable among well-to-do French people keen to imitate royal habits. After a while, they even discovered you could smoke it. It was often known as l’herbe de Nicot, and Nicot’s name became permanently associated with it. (This was possibly helped by the fact that Nicot was keen on renaming tobacco as ‘Nicotiane’, and later in life compiled one of the first ever French dictionaries.) When the plant came to get a Latin name, it was called Nicotiana tabacum in his memory, and from there its chief psychoactive chemical took the name nicotine.

Right to the end of his life, Jean Nicot was convinced that tobacco was a medicine and that he was doing everyone a favour by starting the trend for it.

French culture would never be the same again.


Great French Lives: Etienne de Silhouette


posted by Simon Kemp

A while back, we learned that Joseph-Ignace de Guillotin did not invent the guillotine. Today it’s time to discover that Etienne de Silhouette didn’t invent the silhouette, either.

The story is quite a mysterious one, in fact.  The word silhouette, in French and English, originally referred to cut-out profile portraits in black paper, resembling a shadow of the sitter. Like this one, for instance:


If you go to the Place du Tertre in the Montmartre district of Paris, you’ll probably still get someone try to persuade you to get one of yourself.


The portraits, and the word ‘silhouette’, originated in the eighteenth century. It’s known that the word is derived from the name of Louis XV’s finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, but it’s not exactly clear why.

Etienne de Silhouette was born in Limoges in 1709. He was to rise to the rank of contrôleur général des finances at the court of King Louis by the age of fifty, thanks to the patronage of the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. He was appointed to the post in March 1759, but didn’t even make it to the end of the year. Attempting to get state finances into better shape, he advocated cutting spending, getting rid of loopholes that allowed rich state officials to avoid paying tax, and imposing a touch of austerity on the lavish spending of the royal court. This last proposal in particular didn’t go down too well, and he was booted out of office in November of that year, retiring from public life to live on his country estate for the rest of his days.

Silhouette’s attempted reforms led his enemies to call him a skinflint, and his name was soon associated with meanness and frugality. Apparently, breeches without money-pockets were known as ‘culottes à la Silhouette’ at the time. It’s been claimed that this is the reason Silhouette gave his name to the shadow-portraits, either because they were a ‘portrait-on-the-cheap’, or because they thinned people down to a shadow of themselves. That may just be part of the general slander Silhouette suffered after his short-lived stint in control of the nation’s purse strings. Other accounts suggest he was a genuine enthusiast for shadow-portraits, and would sit guests to his home in front of a blank canvas, before using a special lamp to project their shadow onto it for him to draw around.


Either way, whether he was an enthusiast for the craft or a victim of some very roundabout insult, it’s unlikely that Silhouette was the inventor of the technique. For starters, shadow puppets have been in use in south-east Asia for at least a thousand years, and it’s known that these ‘ombres chinoises’ reached Europe at around the time we’re talking about, where they became generally popular. As with Guillotin, it seems, the famous name gets the credit, and the real inventor, whoever they may have been, is lost in the shadows.


Great French Lives: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s legacy to the French language may not be as useful an addition to your everyday vocabulary as that provided by Eugène Poubelle, but it’s perhaps more distinctively French. As well as the name for the execution device itself (la guillotine), Guillotin has also supplied us with a verb, (guillotiner, to guillotine), two further nouns (le guillotineur/la guillotineuse, who does the guillotining, and the rather less fortunate le guillotiné/la guillotinée at the business end of the device), plus, the excellent term, la fenêtre à guillotine, which sounds very much more architecturally exciting than the English sash window. Note that, like la Bastille (and unlike, say, la ville), the double-l of Guillotin and guillotine has a y-sound rather than an l-sound in French (and apparently also commonly in American English – it’s only the British that always get it wrong).

Here are three things that many people can tell you about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin:

1. He was keen on executing people.

2. He invented the guillotine.

3. He ended up getting executed himself by the device he invented.

Here, on the other hand, are three facts about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin that are actually true:

1. He was strongly opposed to the death penalty.

2. He didn’t invent the guillotine.

3. He died of natural causes in 1814.

Guillotin considered the death penalty barbarous, and was particularly sickened by the suffering inflicted by botched executions, and by the double standards that afforded more humane forms of execution to the aristocracy than to the common people.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, abolition of the death penalty was most definitely not on the cards, but as an alternative measure, and a step in the right direction, he proposed to the National Assembly the following legal reform:

“Les délits du même genre seront punis du même genre de supplice, quels que soient le rang et l’état du coupable; dans tous les cas où la loi prononcera la peine de mort, le supplice sera le même (décapitation), et l’exécution se fera par un simple mécanisme.”

Crimes if the same type will be punished with the same type of penalty, regardless of the rank and estate of the guilty party: in every case where the death penalty is given out, the method will be the same (decapitation), and the execution will be carried out by simple mechanical means.

The motion was accepted, and the Assembly set about finding itself an inventor to come up a device that would fit the bill. The credit for the design and construction of the prototype guillotine goes to the trio of Jean Laquiante, Tobias Schmidt and Antoine Louis (for a short while, it seemed possible that the machine might become known as a ‘Louison’). Guillotin’s name attached to the machine as the legislator who proposed that something should be done, not as the man who created the actual solution to the problem. In fact, the naming of the device after him proved an enduring embarrassment to Guillotin and his family, so much so that the family later petitioned the government to rename the machine, and, when this was rejected, changed their own surname to avoid the association.

The story that Guillotin ended up guillotined himself is entirely mythical. There was in fact a certain Dr J. M. V. Guillotin from Lyon (no relation) who met that fate, and it’s also true that Joseph-Ignace fell foul of the Revolutionary authorities and was imprisoned for a short time during the Terror. From these two facts the myth seems to have arisen, and as usual, the truth has trouble getting in the way of a good story.

Lastly, guillotine is not the French word for that machine your school has for cutting multiple sheets of paper with very straight lines. The French call that un massicot. And yes, it’s because it was invented by a certain M. Massiquot.

Great French Lives: Eugène Poubelle

Poubelle portrait.jpg
M. Poubelle

posted by Simon Kemp

Eugène-René Poubelle was préfet, or regional administrator, in charge of the Seine département, essentially Paris and its suburbs, from 1883 to 1896. What he did while he was there has left a permanent mark on French life, and on the French language. Does his name sound familiar to you at all?

M. Poubelle is the man who brought dustbins to France. In respectful memory of this extraordinary achievement, the French word for bin is la poubelle. (This little fact also featured in the Chassez l’intrus quiz a few weeks ago.)

des poubelles

Paris in the late nineteenth century had a problem. Two million people lived there, and two million people create quite a lot of rubbish. It was Poubelle’s job to come up with a system to deal with it. His solution was surprisingly far-sighted: he didn’t just introduce the bin, he introduced three bins per household: one for perishable rubbish, one for paper and cloth, and one for crockery and shells. It was a precursor of modern recycling. The boxes were known as boîtes Poubelle, soon shortened to poubelles. While the three-box rubbish-sorting system may not have endured, the name has stuck.

Not only did the French honour M. Poubelle by naming their rubbish receptacles after him, the Parisians gave their préfet one of the greatest marks of respect the city can offer: they named one of their streets after him. In the swanky sixteenth arrondissement, home to Paris’s most expensive real estate, you can find the Rue Eugène Poubelle.

rue Poubelle

Last month, an apartment on this street sold for 1 440 000 euros, which is a lot of money to pay to live at an address that very nearly translates as Trashcan Alley.




…..And one other thing. I was contacted a few weeks ago by the BBC to ask if I’d mind verifying the definitions and pronunciation of some French words they wanted to use in their CBBC  ‘comedic panel show’, The Dog Ate My Homework. (I know, the life of a Schools Liaison Officer is just an endless round of showbiz glamour.) All of the words seemed to have been picked because they sounded funny, and inevitably, poubelle was one of them. Ever the educator, I insisted that they couldn’t say la poubelle on air without at least a nod to the memory of the great M. Poubelle. Will they mention him? Probably not. We watch a lot of CBBC in my household, owing to the presence of a number of eight- and nine-year-old boys, but I haven’t seen the show yet. If you catch it, and Eugène makes it to air, please let me know!

dog homework