Monday, March 22, 2010

Word Wonder -- chauvinism

Monday, March 22, 2010

1. Militant glorification of one's countyr; vainglorious patriotism. 2. Unreasoning attachment to one's race, group, etc. -- Funk & Wagnall's Canadian College Dictionary

When I was looking up another word in one of my etymology books (yes, I have several. Scary, eh?), I happened upon the word "chauvinism," and the story of the word was interesting enough that I thought I'd look into it further.

Back in the early 1800s, a French soldier named Nicolas Chauvin fought for his country and was wounded repeatedly. He was such an avid soldier that he was wounded seventeen times before he was forced to stop fighting...only because he had so many scars he could no longer lift his sword. He was given some medals, a ceremonial saber and a small pension for his service.

At this point, Chauvin transferred his intense dedication to France's leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. He couldn't say or do enough to sing the praises of his beloved Napoleon. So passionate was Chauvin that he became something of a laughingstock in his village.

His reputation would probably have died with him, except that in 1831 a couple of French playwrights heard about Chauvin and created a comical character based on him. The play was a hit, and several other authors followed their example. Meaning "excessive or blind patriotism," the term chauvinisme worked its way into the French vernacular. From there it spread to Germany as Hurrapatriotismus and to English as chauvinism.

Over time, the excessive, blind nature of the word spread to other contexts outside the national sphere. In the early 1960s, the term "male chauvinism" was coined to refer to men (and some women, actually) who were so adamant about the roles of men and women that they refused to consider greater abilities and freedoms for women. The really extreme chauvinists were called "male chauvinist pigs." In a time when many women were simply not willing to continue accepting old expectations, there was no patience for people who mocked, harassed, even physically attacked them for their beliefs.

The term "male chauvinist" is not heard often anymore. Many men in North America today accept the growing roles of women in the workplace, politics and finance. Of course, many still do not.

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