What in the Word?! To hell and back with ‘harlequin’
We just can’t seem to outrun the demons on What in the Word?! In our last two posts for the series, we saw how the chemical elements cobalt and nickel had some unlikely goblins buried away in their roots. Here, we’re moving on from the periodic table, but our focal word is hiding a surprisingly devilish etymology all its own: harlequin.
A cast of characters
Today, harlequin feels like an antique word for a clown, conjuring up a jester pratfalling around a Renaissance court in a diamond-patterned onesie. And that’s not far from the part the word has been playing since at least 1590, when the Oxford English Dictionary first cites it as Harlicken in Thomas Nash’s An Almond for a Parrot.
This Harlicken is a leading character in English pantomime, though originally more romantic than buffoonish. During the harlequinade of a traditional pantomime, Harlequin trotted about with ‘particoloured bespangled tights’, as the OED memorably puts it, and a long wand. Very often, Harlequin sported a mask and a cap festooned with the bushy tail of some small mammal, often alongside his mistress, Columbine.
In word and type, seventh-century English pantomime adopted harlequin from French comedy (arlequin) and, before it, Italian commedia dell’arte (arlecchino). On the Italian stage, the harlequin was one of the genre’s many stock comic servants – or zanni, the Venetian Jack or John, pet form of Giovanni and source of our word zany. Commedia dell’arte was quite generous to English: it also gives us pants, shortened from the baggy pantaloons some zanni wore, as well as scaramouch, thanks to the boastful yet cowardly character named Scaramuccia.
The plot thickens from here. For the Italian arlecchino itself appears to be inspired by a medieval French devil known as Hierlekin, among other variants – including la maisnie Hierlekin, a whole troop of demon horsemen (literally, a kind of ‘Harlequin household or clan’) who rode through the air in the lonely countryside at night. Some early accounts describe these evil equestrians as pitch-back and brandishing clubs, which could help explain some of the harlequin’s customary props.
Folklorists connect this hellish host to the European myth of the Wild Hunt, which variously features haunted huntsmen howling and hurtling through the hillsides, trailing disaster. (Their ruckus has led some to connect harlequin to hurly-burly.) In Norse legend, the retinue is led by Odin – or, for Anglo-Saxons, Woden, whose name lives on in the word Wednesday, or ‘Woden’s day’. Some scholars identify Woden with another figure called Herla cyning, or King Herla, creating for some interesting lexical and mythical connections to harlequin. King Herla, though, was a heroic leader with Arthurian trappings, complicating his potential kinship to the fiendish riders.
The philologist Walter Skeat suspects Hierlekin ultimately points back to Germanic roots, though not the Anglo-Saxon King Herla. Instead, he proposed the Old Frisian helle kin. Old Frisian was a West Germanic language spoken in the 8th to 16th centuries around modern-day northern Germany, northern Netherlands, and southern Denmark.
Helle kin – yup, trust your etymological instincts, as zany as they might seem. Helle kin is ‘the kindred of hell’ or ‘the host of hell’, hence a ‘troop of demons’, Skeat explains. For his part, Eric Partridge, another great English lexicographer, agrees with Skeat’s hell part, but takes kin as the diminutive suffix (e.g., bumpkin, manikin).
Skeat continues: ‘The sense being lost, the [Old French] maisnie would be added to keep up the idea of ‘host’, turning hierlekin into (apparently) a personal name of a single demon’. A single such demon indeed looms in different cultural cornerstone of Italian art: Dante’s Inferno, in which a very harlequin-esque devil named Alichino falls into a burning lake after failing to catch a fleeing sinner.
Other etymologists, including Ernest Klein, root Hierlekin in more historical demons: ‘The name is traceable to Herrequin, the count of Boulogne, whose sudden death in 882 was regarded as a fit punishment for his wickedness (he had waged war against his uncle)’.
Skeat observes a similar idea, though for a different figure: ‘The change from hellekin to herlequin… arose from a popular etymology which connected the word to Charles Quint (Charles V.)’. Charles V led the extensive Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century but was beset by French and Protestant forces before abdicating his claims to the Netherlands and Spain and retiring to a monastery.
The many shades of harlequin
Like his signature costume, the origin of harlequin is chequered, if you will. And a devil becoming a clown is definitely an etymological plot twist, though the harlequin’s transition may be due to devils as mischievous trickster in medieval passion plays.
Even if the fiendish hues have washed out, harlequin hasn’t lost its colour, though. Thanks to the distinctive variegation of the character’s stage costume, harlequin has gone to lead its own host, including the harlequin duck, whose gray-blue plumage is streaked dramatically with white, and the harlequin Dane, whose coat is black and white. The harlequin beetle, fly, fish, and snake, among other multicoloured creatures, join them.
For a time in the mid-20th-century, eyeglasses whose frames were angled up at the corners – as we sometimes stereotypes librarians as wearing – went by harlequin glasses, owing to their resemblance to a harlequin’s mask. You might better know them as cat-eye glasses.
But a recent incarnation of harlequin isn’t just preserving the word’s pantomime past, but also plunging it back to its demonic depths: Harley Quinn, a murderous, love-crazed comic book supervillain, played maniacally by Margot Robbie in the film Suicide Squad. There’s something about the harlequin that really knows how to, well, raise the devil.