By Sarah Powell.

(Continued from Our Language is a History Textbook)

Courtesy of FotoosVanRobin

You may have heard that this was just a myth, but the word sandwich really does originate with the English earldom of the same name. Specifically, it was the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who gave his earldom’s name to both the food and the Pacific islands. According to some sources, Montagu was such a gambler that he didn’t have time to eat while playing cards. To avoid getting grease on his fingers, he routinely ordered his servants to bring him slices of meat between two pieces of bread, and others in his social circle began to order “the same as Sandwich.” However, John Montagu also held a prodigious number of public offices during his life, including a British Cabinet position and three separate stints as the First Lord of the Admiralty. With so much on his plate, he probably didn’t eat the original “sandwich” at his gaming table, but at his desk. And we should keep in mind that sandwiches themselves, whatever their name, are much older than any English earldom: as early as 110 BCE, Jewish scriptures describe sandwiches of lamb and herbs between two pieces of matzah being eaten as part of the Passover Seder.

Courtesy of zengei

In 1759, Étienne de Silhouette became the Controller-General of Finances in France. At the time, France and Britain were engaged in the Seven Years’ War, and de Silhouette’s job was to reduce government spending to finance the war. To that end, he cut back on the royal house’s expenses and revised taxes to encourage free trade in the French market, but what really incensed his countrymen–or at least the wealthy among them–was his insistence that the rich and privileged pay taxes, something from which the nobility had formerly been exempt. De Silhouette instituted taxes on signs of wealth such as servants and luxury goods and ordered the melting-down of gold and silver as a war measure. Eight months later, in the face of widespread criticism, de Silhouette stepped down from his position. Because de Silhouette was seen as such a tightwad, à la Silhouette became synonymous with “cheap.” It was sheer coincidence that a new form of art involving black paper cut to the shape of a profile began gaining popularity around that time. Because profile portraits were less expensive than traditional portraiture, they were often referred to as Silhouettes, and the name caught on. From there silhouette entered the English language and broadened in meaning until it referred to any shadow or image revealing an object’s shape.

Courtesy of xavier buaillon

The English term for excessive patriotism, chauvinism, originates with the name of a French soldier rumored to have served in the Grande Armée under Napoleon Bonaparte. His name was Nicolas Chauvin, and he was born in Rochefort in the 1780s; he enlisted when he was 18 years old and was such a dedicated soldier that, despite sustaining an incredible number of injuries during his service and eventually being maimed, his devotion to l’Empereur never flagged. Supposedly, Napoleon was so impressed by Chauvin’s loyalty that he awarded him a Sword of Honor and a generous pension. Even after the Hundred Days and Napoleon’s final exile, Chauvin’s fierce patriotism continued, earning him the contempt of his peers, and by the mid-1800s his name had been popularized (and ridiculed) by the Cogniard brothers’ vaudeville La cocarde tricolore. By the 1870s “chauvinism” was in English use, and by 1969 the phrase “male chauvinism” had extended its meaning to include sexism. But what’s really unique about this word is that, in all likelihood, it’s based on a myth: there are no historical records of anyone named Nicolas Chauvin ever serving in the Grande Armée or receiving a Sword of Honor from Napoleon, and the appearance of this legendary soldier in comedy plays such as the Cogniards’ is likely the only reason we have the word “chauvinism” today.

Read more posts about etymology.