Monday, 20 June 2016

A Frenchman considers the English "mob"

In May 1788, barely more than a year before the Revolution, a reader of the Journal Encyclopédique sharpened his quill to pen a letter on the English word "Mob".

Our learned correspondent contests the view that "Mob" can be translated into French by "canaille". "Canaille" had already been naturalised into the English language: according to Johnson's Dictionary:

CANAILLE (French): The lowest people, the dregs. the lees, the offscouring of the people, a French term of reproach.

"Mob", on the other hand, is defined by the number of people and their disorderliness rather than their social status:

MOB (contracted from MOBILE Latin), the crowd, a tumultuous rout.

The writer cites examples from Dryden and Addison where the word is used simply to mean a crowd (une foule).  There is also an English word "populace" which is defined by Johnson as "the common people", "the multitude".  "Mob", however, has no synonym in French.

But what if "la canaille" forms the crowd?  The word "Mob"itself still does not denote a particular social composition, though it does suggest unthinking movement, the milling of the crowd around an object. English wits used "Mobility" (as opposed to "nobility") as a pun.  Perhaps, since the populace is mobile, "mob" and "populace" might be considered synonyms, but all social statuses are still included.   Burke, in a recent speech in the House of Commons, called the Ministerial Party a mob - he surely did not mean "la canaille insensée".

A final example of use of the term comes from Voltaire during his sojourn in London.  When his French costume excited the hostile attentions of passersby, he climbed up on the bench of a nearby stall and won over the crowd with a pretty speech, harangued them in English as "GENTLEMEN OF THE MOB".  [This anecdote is repeated later by Wagnière (Mémoires i, p.23), though sadly with different words attributed to Voltaire.]  I am not convinced  - maybe Voltaire just displayed sufficient panache to be forgiven his imperfect command of English idiom.


Letter dated 3rd April 1788, Journal Encyclopédique Vol 4, part 1, p. 135

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