I mentioned a while back that I was reading Proust to my wife in the evenings (in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation), and I’ve come across a word so obscure and entrancing that I had to tell you about it. As Swann is ascending the staircase to the Marquise de Saint-Euverte’s party (in the “Swann in Love” section, on p. 354 of my edition), he is followed by “a servant with a pallid countenance and a small pigtail clubbed at the back of his head, like a Goya sacristan or a tabellion in an old play.” Tabellion is taken straight from the French (“comme un sacristain de Goya ou un tabellion du répertoire”), but it turns out to be English as well; the OED says:
[ad. L. tabellio, -ōnem, one who draws up written instruments, a notary, scrivener, f. tabella tablet, letter, etc.]
A scrivener, a kind of subordinate notary; esp. in the Roman Empire, and in France till the Revolution, an official scribe having some of the functions of a notary. In 17-18th c. used as a recognized designation of a vocation in England and New England.
The citations go back to the fifteenth century; you can see the New England use in a 1735 quote from C. Hazard, Life T. Hazard (1893): “I Joseph Marion Notary and Tabellion Publick Dwelling in Boston in New England” (all the citations are quoted here). What a fine thing, to be a tabellion!
A couple of pages previously, Swann is examining “the scattered pack of tall, magnificent, idle footmen” in the entrance hall:
One of them, of a particularly ferocious aspect, and not unlike the headsman in certain Renaissance pictures which represent executions, tortures, and the like, advanced upon him with an implacable air to take his “things.” But the harshness of his steely glare was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so effectively that, as he approached Swann, he seemed to be exhibiting at once an utter contempt for his person and the most tender regard for his hat.
(For those who think there aren’t enough hats in this blog.)
Addendum. Spammers seem to have latched onto this inoffensive entry, so I am (with deep regret) closing the thread. If anyone wishes to contribute further to it, please e-mail me and I will reopen it for that purpose.