From Napoleonic idolatry to ethnic solidarity

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One of the many difficult things about English spelling is that you can't choose the right letter for an unstressed vowel unless you know the word, or guess its etymology, or get lucky. Everybody gets the wrong end of this one from time to time — certainly I do — and that's why dictionaries and the internet are especially helpful for those of us who occasionally display our orthographic guesses in public. Last week, someone at Fox News got overconfident:

What's more surprising is that today, four or five days later, the headline hasn't been corrected.

Where did this chauvinism thing come from, anyway? The OED explains:

[a. F. chauvinisme, orig. ‘idolatrie napoléonienne’ La Rousse; from the surname of a veteran soldier of the First Republic and Empire, Nicolas Chauvin of Rochefort, whose demonstrative patriotism and loyalty were celebrated, and at length ridiculed, by his comrades. After the fall of Napoleon, applied in ridicule to old soldiers of the Empire, who professed a sort of idolatrous admiration for his person and acts. Especially popularized as the name of one of the characters in Cogniard's famous vaudeville, La Cocarde Tricolore, 1831 (‘je suis français, je suis Chauvin’); and now applied to any one smitten with an absurd patriotism, and enthusiasm for national glory and military ascendancy.]

The word's route to this Fox headline runs, as so much current American right-wing attitudinizing does, though a period of incubation in left-wing politics:

1955 Bull. Atomic Sci. Apr. 142/3 Even though scientists did not go as far as to confuse scientific knowledge with national ideological doctrine, they did, nonetheless, often make it a point of patriotic honor to practice a certain kind of scientific nationalism and almost indeed a scientific chauvinism. 1968 Voice of Women's Lib. Movement June 8 The chauvinism..they met came from individuals and was not built into the institution itself. 1970 K. MILLETT Sexual Politics (1971) II. iv. 208 At times there is a curious tone of ‘female chauvinism’. 1973 C. SAGAN Cosmic Connection (1974) xxiv. 180 Contact with another intelligent species on a planet of some other star..may help us to cast off our..human chauvinism. 1975 New Left Rev. Nov.-Dec. 48 Bachelard's neglect..cannot be ascribed to cultural chauvinism alone. 1984 N.Y. Times 15 Jan. 23/1 Freedom from sexism..must include a commitment to freedom from national chauvinism; class and ethnic bias; anti-Semitism; [etc.].

The new Arizona law, HB 2281, "prohibits a school district or charter school from including courses or classes that either promote the overthrow of the United States government or promote resentment toward a race or class of people." More specifically, it

States that the Legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.


Prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that:

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The words chauvinist and chauvinism don't appear in the text of the law, in any spelling. The body of the Fox News story gives us one of each:

State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tom Horne called passage in the state House a victory for the principle that education should unite, not divide students of differing backgrounds.

"Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds," Horne said. "This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism."

Horne began fighting in 2007 against the Tucson Unified School District's program, which he said defied Martin Luther King's call to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Horne claimed the ethnic studies program encourages "ethnic chauvanism," promotes Latinos to rise up and create a new territory out of the southwestern region of the United States and tries to intimidate conservative teachers in the school system.

As far as I can tell, self-identified conservatives like Mr. Horne are now terminologically (if not not orthographically) yoked with Trotskyites and other self-identified socialists, who seem to be the only others who deploy this word in describing the situation of Latinos in Arizona, e.g. "Socialist internationalism and the defense of immigrant workers", 5/4/2010:

Anti-immigrant chauvinism is a political weapon in the hands of the ruling elite and the right-wing demagogues who defend its interests, not only in the US, but in every country in the world.

Mr. Horne is symmetrically upset about pro-immigrant chauvinism, but the words (and some of the associated feelings) are the same.

[As for the eccentric and variable spelling, I'm assuming that this is the responsibility of reporters and/or editors at Fox, whom no one should give in to the temptation to mock. No doubt they'll learn better, as this word works its way towards the center of their ideological lexicon. And we can find other recent examples of "chauvanism" in an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates ("We had come in with our "Great Kings and Queens" narrative, as armor  against Western chauvanism"), in Bell Hooks' The Will to Change ("It is no accident that feminists began to use the word 'patriarchy' to replace the more commonly used 'male chauvanism' and 'sexism'"), and even in the Global Dictionary of Theology ("This impulse allowed them both to rise above the implicit chauvanism of some of their Christain [sic] socialist colleagues").

Note that there are eight hits on the Arizona Department of Education site for chauvinism, and none for chauvanism, supporting my guess that the Fox News spelling was a reporter's transcription error.]


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    Probably the most troublesome unstressed vowel in the known universe is in the second syllable of Geoff Pullum's name. I know better now than to try to spell it from memory, but it's right there to cut and paste from the masthead.

    I don't know Restoration-era French pronunciation. Wouldn't Nick's surname be pronounced something like "show-VAN"? Maybe the new spelling is progress. Outlawing jingoism in schools would be progress, but it (like progress, in Arizona) seems unlikely.

    [(myl) Well, there are already four web hits for pullumism, and none for pullamism, so we're off to a good start. And I liked the story at the end of the Wikipedia article on Chauvin, though I haven't yet figured out how to fit it into the Arizona situation:

    Many writers and historians falsely attribute to Chauvin the exploits of other Bonapartists. It is claimed that he served in the Old Guard at Waterloo, which is unlikely considering his age and the severity of his disabilities. When the Old Guard was surrounded and made its last stand at La Belle Alliance, he supposedly shouted in defiance to a call for their honorable surrender: "The Old Guard dies but does not surrender!", implying blind and unquestioned zealous devotion to one's country [or other group of reference]. This apocryphal phrase was in fact attributed to the Old Guard's commander, Pierre Cambronne whose actual reply was later asserted by other sources to be "Merde!"


  2. Jim said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    "Last week, someone at Fox News got overconfident:"

    That's the most charitable euphemism I have heard all week.

    "Probably the most troublesome unstressed vowel in the known universe is in the second syllable of Geoff Pullum's name."

    It's a 'a', right? The name is really "Pulham", isn't it?

  3. Marit said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    I just realized I actually have an advantage in English over native English speakers when it comes to spelling, having Norwegian as my mother tongue. Many "advanced" words like chauvinism is spelled in (almost) the same way, but with a pronounciation following the spelling more closely.

  4. dw said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    My accent (originally British, now somewhat Americanized) actually does have the KIT vowel in the second syllable of "chauvinism", so I would be lucky enough to know how to spell that particular word.

    Wikipedia says that the weak-vowel merger is "complete in the Southern Hemisphere accents and Hiberno-English and variable in General American".

    [(myl) I don't think that there are any varieties of English that distinguish e.g. the final syllables of assistant and persistent. ]

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    It's Pull'em.

  6. Mark P said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

    Given my own record of misspellings, I would cut Fox some slack for "chauvanism", at least unless I was feeling particularly snarky. I'm less inclined to be that generous to those masters of unintended irony being quoted, not for the misspelling, but for the frustrating perversion of meaning that they engage in so often.

    But I'm not sure why Fox doesn't have spell checkers. Mine mark "chauvanism" as misspelled.

  7. Sili said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

    It isn't "Pullet"?!

    I guess the parrots musta let me astray.

    I had no idea this was the origin of the word. I'd heard Chauvin described as the archetypal male-chauvinist, thus making male-chauvinist a pleonasm.

    And yes, I have indeed been a prescriptivist on that matter. *ashamed*

  8. jan said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    i'm guessing the two different spellings in the text could be explained by assuming that the larger quote is copied and pasted into the article.

  9. Chris Brew said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

    If you know it is of French origin, and you want to show that off, you could say "show van ism". It wouldn't be absurd for someone to guess the spelling of that as "chauvanism(e)". In the UK I always heard this word as "show vinn ism" or "cho vinn ism" with a clear /i/ vowel. To a first approximation, the typical response of a UK audience of any sort to any display of etymological erudition is "What's wrong with you, swallowed a dictionary or something?". If French is involved, doubly so. Whereas the classical music announcers on NPR seem to think that pronouncing stuff in a +foreign kind of way is still impressive. Usually reduces me to giggles.

  10. Jonathan Badger said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    @Chris Brew
    Particularly amusing in that the NPR tradition tends to only extend to French and German. They'll delight in pronouncing "Bach" with throat-clearing vigor, but "Tchaikovsky" is pronounced in the normal American way, with no attempt to mimic the Russian.

  11. John said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

    CNN today spoke of the "lynchpin" in finding the would-be Times-Square bomber. Freudian slip?

    Fortunately the CC-typer (computer?) was smarter and had "linchpin" for the spoken version.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    In French, the vowels of Chauvin and chauvinisme are different – a nasal vowel in the first word (as in vin) but a high front oral vowel in the second. This is a normal morphophonemic alternation, not specific to these words but automatic depending on the syllable structure.

    The original Chauvin was male but the attitude he is remembered for is naive patriotism. I never heard that he had anything to do with the famous reply of the French guards at Waterloo, which is so identified with General Cambronne that the French euphemism for Merde! as a swearword is le mot de Cambronne.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    John, aren't lynchpin and linchpin pronounced the same? And the dictionaries I checked have those as alternate spellings of the same word. So I don't understand what you are getting at.

  14. Bob Ladd said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 4:33 am

    @Chris Brew: Well, no, that wouldn't be a good way to show off: in French chauvinisme is pronounced with a clear, non-nasal i vowel in the second syllable. Only the name Chauvin has the nasal vowel that sounds to English speakers like the vowel in -van.

    But yes, it's certainly true that many British speakers have a clear distinction between unstressed KIT and schwa, so for the most part they wouldn't be tempted to spell chauvinism with an a.

  15. ...just don't call me late for dinner! said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    "Whereas the classical music announcers on NPR seem to think that pronouncing stuff in a +foreign kind of way is still impressive. "

    The main reason I listen to NPR is to hear that female reporter pronounce "Nicolas Sarkozy" in the most overwrought French accent you can imagine. Cracks me up every time.

  16. G. K. Nedrow said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    While we're discussing variant spellings, I am reminded of how Dan Quayle got skewered a few years back for spelling 'potato' with an 'e' – 'potatoe.' The media despised Quayle and ridiculed him for it, but in fact those of us raised in the pre-boomer era were indeed taught to spell potatoe with the superfluous final vowel. The same is true of appear and disappear, the past tense of which always required doubling the final consonant (appearred and disappearred), although the journalistic stylebooks, due to space constraints, favor the simple '-red' spelling of the past tense. Are either of these spellings still considered acceptable variants in venues other than the news?

  17. Bobbie said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    I'm a pre-boomer and was **never taught to spell Potato as Potatoe!

  18. Bob Violence said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    Plus Dan Quayle was pretty far from "pre-boomer".

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