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In tracing the histories of English words we are often led into other languages, such as Latin, Hindi, French, Chinese, and so on. Occasionally, however, the origin of a word lies not in another language but in the name of an individual. This is what happens with “chauvinism.”

Nicolas Chauvin was a French soldier who served under Napoleon Bonaparte. Born in Rochefort about 1780 (or July 4, 1776 according to some stories), he enlisted in the First Army of the French Republic at the age of 18. He subsequently served in La Grande Armée of Napoleon. During the Napoleonic Wars he was wounded 17 times. His wounds resulted in severe disfigurement and maiming. Napoleon presented Chauvin with a Sabre of Honor and a pension.

Chauvin not only had a distinguished record of service, but he also had an extreme devotion to Napoleon. The Britannica Online Encyclopedia describes Chauvin as:

a French soldier who, satisfied with the reward of military honours and a small pension, retained a simpleminded devotion to Napoleon.
In later Restoration France, when Napoleon was not particularly popular, this outspoken devotion to his hero was at odds with popular opinion. Chauvin came to typify the glorification of all things military. In the reported opinions and actions of Nicolas Chauvin, with his blind devotion to a discredited leader, the nineteenth century French playwrights had a humorous character which could be easily stereotyped in their comedies.  

The exaggerated patriotism and blind optimism of the character of Nicolas Chauvin resulted in the French word “chavinisme.” From the French, English acquired the word “chauvinism” in 1870 where it was generalized to mean “an exaggerated devotion to one’s own group or place.”

In the twentieth century, “chauvinism” became a part of the phrase “male chauvinism” and in the twenty-first century the modifier “male” is often dropped and “chauvinism” is used to mean “the denigration, disparagement, and patronization of either sex based on the belief that one sex is inferior to the other and thus deserving of less than equal treatment or benefit.” There are some who feel that “chauvinism” is today simply a synonym for “Republican.”

In terms of etymology, there’s also another thread for us: the meaning of the surname Chauvin. This name seems to come from “chauve” meaning “bald” and originates from the Latin “calvus.” The Northern French version of this name is “Calvin,” the surname of Jean Calvin who founded Calvinism. Thus, “chauvinism” and “Calvinism” are linguistically intertwined.

One of the important questions which we have to ask at this time: did Nicolas Chauvin really exist? Was he actually a real person, or was he simply a fictional character from the French plays who developed a persona that seemed real? A number of historians who have examined the story have concluded that he is simply a legend. Some historians refer to Nicolas Chauvin as semi-mythical.

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sat Apr 13, 2013 at 08:18 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Cranky Grammarians, and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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