The curious history of ‘chauvinism’

Many have found it encouraging to see the increasingly public discourse around sexism, bigotry, and prejudice in recent years – with the #MeToo movement a prominent force in this arena. This blog post doesn’t intend to weigh into that world, but rather does what a dictionary blog does best – looks at the linguistic curios that accompany such discussions. In this case, the word chauvinism.

You’re probably most likely to have heard the term used in the phrase male chauvinism, which means ‘male prejudice against women; the belief that men are superior in terms of ability, intelligence, etc.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of this term (though not, regrettably, the prevalence of this opinion) dates only as far back as the 1930s. The male bit probably doesn’t need much explaining, but what of chauvinism?

Soldiering on

You might not have been expecting a soldier at this point, but that’s where this linguistic journey begins – with one Nicolas Chauvin of Rochefort. Fighting in the time of Napoleon on the side of his nation, France, Chauvin’s one major disadvantage was that he probably didn’t exist. On the other hand, his demonstrative patriotism and loyalty were the stuff of legend, and his name was used to celebrate (and also ridicule) extreme patriotism, particularly as related to warfare. Indeed, the earliest sense in the OED is ‘exaggerated patriotism of a bellicose sort; blind enthusiasm for national glory or military ascendancy’. The English equivalent is jingoism, which was originally a nickname for those who supported the policy of Lord Beaconsfield in sending a British fleet into Turkish waters to resist the advance of Russia in 1878 – coming from the expression by Jingo! in the refrain of a related music-hall song.

After the fall of Napoleon, the term (chauvinisme in French) was widely applied to ridicule old soldiers of the Empire (who chiefly professed heightened admiration for all Napoleon said and did). Chauvin was popularized in the Cogniard brothers’ vaudeville La Cocarde Tricolor, translating as ‘the tricolour cockade’, where tricolour is the French flag – so named for its three bands of colour – and cockade is ‘a rosette or knot of ribbons worn in a hat as a badge of office, or as part of a livery’. What a show it sounds.

Broadening the definition

While ‘excessive or aggressive patriotism’ is still in use as a sense of chauvinism, it has also become used in the sense ‘excessive or prejudiced support for one’s own cause, group, or sex’. It’s not too difficult to see how this change might have occurred – according to the current OED entry, which dates the first use of chauvinism to 1870, this secondary sense followed by 1955. As the OED notes, it frequently appeared (and appears) with a defining adjective – such as cultural or scientific – but male became far and away the most connotative adjective.

You might also be familiar with male chauvinist pig. Quite what the pig did to deserve this connotation is unclear, but the noun (again, for ‘a man who believes that men are superior to women’) emerged around 1970. Perhaps surprisingly, the earliest use of the term in the current OED entry comes from Playboy (1970). The magazine – euphemistically labelled ‘an American men’s lifestyle and entertainment magazine’ by Wikipedia – isn’t always noted for its progressive views on feminism. Perhaps the Playboy quotation in which the term appears – ‘Up Against the Wall Male Chauvinist Pig!’ – isn’t the rallying cry for equality that it might appear, out of context. This particular volume (along with every single other volume) isn’t in my personal library for checking.

And so things have come full circle. While chauvinism started life with a very specific application, gradually grew broader, and then narrowed again. There are still a few applications that the noun chauvinist can have, but in isolation, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s being used to suggest that somebody is a misogynist.

Simon Thomas December 5 2018

Simon Thomas previously worked in Marketing for Oxford Dictionaries, and now writes freelance. Follow his blog and find him on Twitter for more musings on language and literature.

Categories: Word origins
Tags: chauvinismOEDword origins
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