Here’s another glorious #wonderword! One you might be forgiven for thinking was the name of a villain in a James Bond film but in fact dégringolade is used either as a verb or a noun to describe a more serious state of affairs – that of a decline or deterioration. Not just any old type of decline but a rapid one. One minute up, next minute down, just like Captain Haddock of Tintin fame whose life is a series of disasters interspersed with acts of comedic heroism.
A prime case of semantic drift dégringolade’s etymological origins are Middle French (desgringueler) meaning to tumble and also Middle Dutch (crinkelen) to make curl, similar in fact to the English words of “crinkle” and “crank”. In other words dégringolade indicates not only decline but its speed and trajectory. Got it?
Its first known use was in 1873; perhaps not so surprising as this was but six years before the French Revolution. Although mostly commonly found in French usage it does pop up in English especially in political and financial journalism, for example,
“For a Democratic Party in the depths of political dégringolade, liberal-Progressives throughout DC and the media are expressing a level of bravado that reeks of either an embarrassing feign or a deep level of denial of the message sent to them by the American people.” ¹
Or in the case of the English author Julian Barnes from Nothing to be Frightened of, his maverick twist on the family memoir,
“Though I based the story on a septuagenarian dégringolade I heard about elsewhere, which I then grafted on to my parents’ home life, I didn’t deceive myself about what I was up to. I was retrospectively – posthumously – giving my father a bit of fun, of extra life, of air.” ²
Either way it is a fantastically expressive and imaginative word to be savoured.
¹ Winters, P. M., “Democratic Party Dégringolade”, Dignitas News Service, 6 November 2014.
² Barnes, J, Nothing to be Frightened of, (Jonathan Cape), 2008. For a review of this book written in the New York Times by Garson Keillor click here.
For the pronounciation of dégringolade click here.
I’m a fan of the English writer Julian Barnes; I admire his economical use of language and his careful construction of the plot lines and psycho-drama of his novels. A little while back I read his tenth book Arthur and George, first published in 2005, and what struck me was how well he had researched a criminal case that became an Edwardian cause célèbre with, to boot, the involvement of the creator of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
George Edjali, a young lawyer of mixed race – whose father was an Indian Parsee who converted to Christianity, became a clergyman, and came to England to take up a country parish in Staffordshire – was accused of the crime of “ripping horses” in Wyrley in 1903.
These incidents became known as the “Great Wyrley Outrages” and were sensationalised in the newspapers of the day. Edjali was arrested, charged and sentenced to seven years penal servitude, reduced to three after a petition was raised for his release. Conan Doyle became involved when he read of Edjali’s determination to clear his name and his family’s reputation, and resume his professional life after having been banned from practising law.
Conan Doyle investigated the circumstances surrounding the “rippings” and was convinced that Edjali was an innocent man. Using his celebrity to generate public interest in the case, he lobbied the Home Office for a pardon and due compensation for Edjali. One of the outcomes of this campaign and the light it threw on certain legal and police procedural practices was the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.
Julian Barnes used a number of sources to help shape the novel’s characters, their motivation, their psychology, and to convey the social attitudes of the period. Conan Doyle was convinced that Edjali was convicted of the crimes due to two critical factors: firstly that he was of mixed race and reportedly “looked strange”, and second that the Staffordshire Constabulary was not only incompetent but made the crime fit the man. What had convinced Conan Doyle of Edjali’s innocence was on first meeting him he noticed the younger man’s severe myopia; Doyle had once been a specialist in opthalmology before finding success as a writer.
Seeing, yet not seeing, lies at the heart of Arthur and George. It’s a powerful rumination on identity, Englishness, life and death, guilt and innocence, and the grey space existing between.
For further information and material on the Edjali case see Birmingham City Council archives at http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/edalji
For information about George Edjali see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Edalji
To listen to a 1987 BBC radio dramatization of the case click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePHl02pqjQE
For the Conan Doyle letters to the Chief Constable of Staffordfordshire concerning the Edalji Case see http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22713/lot/134/