the mot juste

Fitzroy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, by Roger Fenton, 1855

Lord Raglan’s struggling to put his finger on the very word he wants, in the middle of the Battle of Inkerman, in the Crimea in 1854. He turns to the French commander, Canrobert.

’Nous sommes – nous sommes,’ he said, hesitating for the appropriate word. ‘Vous avez un mot d’argot qui exprime bien ce que je veux dire.’

Nous sommes foutus,’ said Canrobert. ‘J’espère que non, milord.’”

(The Destruction of Lord Raglan: A Tragedy of the Crimean War,Christopher Hibbert (1961), p.223, citing Le Maréchal Canrobert, G. Bapst (1914).)

The French words could be translated: ‘You’ve got a slang word for exactly what I’m trying to say. / Yes: we are screwed; I hope not, sir.’

Sometimes it’s not too hard to move the word from one language to another. Like spinning the reels on a slot machine (or, one-armed bandit), when one item (a lexical unit; a fruit) leaves and another appears in its exact same place. ‘Weisse Hai’ means ‘cápa’ means ‘tubarão’…

… means ‘shark’? ‘Momoderimus’ means ‘we will have bitten’, in Latin. Sharknado? More difficult, but the classy classicists at Sententia Antiquae have been investigating the best terms for the concept.

Hibbert’s book on Lord Raglan, a jaw-dropping story of bad supply lines, starvation, miscommunication, despair, opens with the epigram, from Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, of 2 February 1855: ‘Every whale must have a Jonah when the sea runs high’.