A reader writes:

I was trudging through Vollmann’s “Rising Up and Rising Down” when the following caught my eye:

“You Englishmen, who have no right in this Kingdom of France,” she writes on a sheet tied to an arrow and shot out of besieged Orleans, “the King of Heaven orders and commands you through me, Joan the Maid, that you quit your fortresses and return into your own country or if not I shall make you such babay that the memory of it will be perpetual.” (May 5, 1429)

Babay” did not yield its secrets on wiktionary […] Perhaps it was an error in print or translation, so I looked up the source in French:

«Vous, Anglais, qui n’avez aucun droit sur ce royaume de France, le Roi des Cieux vous ordonne et mande par moi, Jeanne la Pucelle, que vous quittiez vos fortresses et retourniez dans votre pays, ou sinon, je vous ferai tel babay dont sera perpétuelle mémoire. Voilà ce que je vous écris pour la troisième et dernière fois, et n’écrirai pas davantage. Signé : Jhesus-Maria, Jeanne la Pucelle» […]

I tried Google’s ngram viewer and the French and English corpora, with not-very-encouraging results. “Babay” was capitalized in most of them, with the few exceptions reverting to the Philippines. A near hapax legomenon?

What else could I do? I tried a few online dictionaries for old French, to no avail, with “0 results” mutely judging me the way only specialized search engines can do.

This is the sort of thing the Hattery is good at, so have at it!


  1. OK, you caught my attention. Rather than “babay”, the word is printed as “hahay” in French and “hahu” in Latin in the parallel texts presented in the biography by J-E. Choussy, _Vie de Jeanne d’Arc_ (1900). This, in turn, leads to Paul Ancel, “Le mot «hahu» dans une lettre de Jeanne d’Arc” in “L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux” Vol. 92, 10 Jan. 1929 (419), who suggests it means less the interjection “haha” or “hey”, and is instead closer in meaning to “brouhaha”, a tumultuous event.

    (There’s a spelling of Anglo-Norman French “hai” as “hahy” in the Anglo-Norman Dictionary. OED suggests Fr “brouhaha” is 15th C, but I’m stepping away from this before the rest of my morning is spent on it.)

  2. It’s a misprint for hahai/hahay/ahai (as found by searching for the first part of the speech). That is usually an exclamation, see here.

  3. Thanks to you both — that certainly clears it up!

  4. So, we finally know how babay was formed!

  5. Is there an contemporary source for the French version of her letter, or was hahay only dug up by 19th century translators of the Latin, to correspond to hahu?

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Brett has certainly just won the thread, and possibly the Internet.

    I shall be able to tell my grandchildren that I was there.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    has citations and variant spellings

  8. I would have thought one formed babby by doing hahay.

  9. @PP: What I meant was, was there a French version of the ultimatum to the English from Jeanne d’Arc’s time. All I could find was the Latin version (from the testimony of Jean Pasquerel). All the French versions I have seen are in Modern French, so I imagine 19th century translators dug into Godefroy or such to find a proper antiquarian equivalent to hahu, and came up with hahay.

  10. I fear the learned commentators above are in error: babay is clearly a late survival of a once widespread Greco-Roman slang exclamation, attested for example in

    Euripides Cyclops 156 βαβαί, χορεῦσαι παρακαλεῖ μ᾽ ὁ Βάκχιος “Wheeee! Bacchus is making me dance”

    Plato Philebus 23b βαβαῖ ἄρα, ὦ Πρώταρχε, συχνοῦ μὲν λόγου τοῦ λοιποῦ “Whew, Protarchus, we still have a lot to talk about”

    Petronius Satyricon 37 Familia vero babae babae! non mehercules puto decumam partem esse quae dominum suum noverit “As for the slaves he has, man oh man! I doubt a tenth of them even know their own master”

    Alternatively, this could be an intentional display of classical scholarship by La Pucelle (which would seem to be supported by her obvious allusion to the concept of κλέος ἄφθιτον, “perpétuelle mémoire”); I leave the question for readers to decide.

  11. (The Indo-European etymology of βαβαί/βαβαῖ, of which the Latin term is clearly a borrowing, is somewhat unclear. Gr. β- points to a PIE voiced labiovelar, and -α- could plausibly represent a zero-grade of the root *gʷem-, of which this form would be an expressive reduplication with the addition of the hic-et-nunc particle *i, meaning “Go, go there!” Perhaps more likely is Szemerényi’s unpublished suggestion of an onomatopoeic *gʷa-gʷa-, yielding a meaning like “Look, there’s a duck!”, later semantically/pragmatically bleached.)

  12. @TR: Perhaps more likely is Szemerényi’s unpublished suggestion of an onomatopoeic *gʷa-gʷa-, yielding a meaning like “Look, there’s a duck!”, later semantically/pragmatically bleached.

    Quick, someone fetch a straitjacket and a Napoleon hat!

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    I was assuming Jeanne d’Arc articulated in Old French and that the scribe wrote Latin (even if she wrote, I was supposing the letter was made by a scribe). So hahai is the Urtext. Do you know of a good reason to think there was ever a written Old French version of the letter, that preceded the written Latin version?

  14. I don’t. I couldn’t find an Old French version of the test.

    I suppose she’d have communicated with the English in Latin. I wonder, though, if the Latin of the ultimatum is French-tinged.

  15. “text”, not “test”.

  16. Well, for Jeanne it was the ultimate test…

  17. Here’s the Old French version of Jeanne’s letter for you all. And it is “hahay.”

  18. January First-of-May says

    “Я вам такой хахай устрою…”

    (I tried to look up the etymology of Russian хай “noise, commotion” – which is a fairly good fit for the context – but couldn’t find anything definite, though it’s probably not from French. AFAICT the best guess is that it’s a nominalization of хаять “to slander, to find fault with”, though apparently the etymology of that word is itself uncertain.)

    [It was hard enough to look up the translation; I checked the usual parallel text services, but it turns out that the parallel texts where Russian has хай are horribly polluted by “Hi”, “High”, “Uruk-hai”, various other transliterations, and to a lesser extent the homonymous Ukrainian borrowing, which Wiktionary translates as “let”. Eventually I did find some online dictionaries that had the word, but it took a while.]

  19. Here’s the Old French version of Jeanne’s letter for you all.
    That’s the letter of 22 March 1429, quoted at her first trial; the letter Hat’s correspondent cites is from 5 May 1429 cited by Jean Pasquerel at the posthumous retrial:

    Dit aussi le témoin qu’en cette fête de l’Ascension du Seigneur, Jeanne écrivit aux Anglais se trouvant dans les fortins ou bastilles en ces termes :
    « Vous, hommes d’Angleterre, qui n’avez aucun droit en ce royaume de France, le Roi des cieux vous avertit et vous mande par moi, Jeanne la Pucelle, d’abandonner vos fortins et de rentrer dans votre pays, sinon je vous ferai tel hahu (6) dont on se souviendra toujours. Et cela je vous l’écris pour la troisième et dernière fois ; je n’écrirai plus davantage ». Ainsi signé : « Jhesus Maria. Jehanne la Pucelle ». Et en outre : « Je vous aurais bien envoyé ma lettre d’une manière plus honnête ; mais vous détenez prisonniers mes messagers, hérauts en français ; vous avez retenu mon héraut dénommé Guyenne. Si vous voulez me le renvoyer, moi je vous renverrai quelques-uns de vos gens, pris au fortin de Saint-Loup, car ils ne sont pas tous morts ».

    Footnote 6 is:

    Assaut (hahay dans sa lettre aux Anglais, un terme qu’elle semble aimer).

  20. 1. A major point: Only if her letter in her own hand has survived may we be sure of how she spelled the word in question.

    2. A minor point: “Old French” should be “Middle French.”

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    My first port of call was the online Dictionnaire du Moyen Français:;XMODE=STELLa;FERMER;;AFFICHAGE=0;SANS_MENU;;ISIS=isis_dmfsmart.txt;s=s136316c8;
    However for cites I needed to go to Godefroy “Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue française “.
    Sorry for confusion.

  22. Since Vollman’s work dates from November 2003, he can’t have relied on this 2005 digitization of Jeanne d’Arc, heroine and healer documentary evidences (Charles Rœssler, 1910), which has the same error as OCR. Perhaps Vollman made a HOCR* error from the same edition.

    While A[utomatic]CR might contrast with M[anual]CR or M[achine]CR with H[uman]CR, it doesn’t make sense to contrast O[ptical]CR with either of those.

  23. Mollymooly: Sorry, my mistake!

    M.: To your minor point, Y. was looking for the letter in “Old French,” so I responded in kind. The usual date given for ancien français sliding into moyen français is around 1400, so Jeanne was right on the cusp. I prefer the term “French supposedly from 1429.” To your major point, the site gives as its source a book on the trial from 1868, so we’d have to consult that to find out the provenance of the text. Another major point: since Jeanne was a young woman from a peasant family, it’s likely that she was illiterate, and that someone else wrote the letter for her.

    Quel hahay pour un mot!

  24. Bulgarian вай is probably related.

    Brett: it /is/ how babby is formed.

  25. This is Paul Ancel’s note, referenced by lutefish:

    Le mot «hahu» dans une lettre de Jeanne d’Arc (XCII,290). — Le Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue française, tome IV, page 397, de Frédéric Godefroy, définit le mot «hahai» (ou: hahay, hahaye, haihai, haha, hai): cri de guerre, cri d’alarme, cri de detresse, tumulte guerrier, cri, tumulte en général, et donne de nombreux exemples de l’emploi de ce mot, pris dans divers manuscrits des XIIIᵉ, XIVᵉ et XVᵉ siècle.
    Une lettre de la Pucelle d’Orléans en date du 22 mars 1429 contient déjà ce mot auquel fait allusion l’auteur de la question, mais orthographié non pas «hahu» mais «hahaye».
    Il semble que I’on doive voir dans ce mot une simple onomatopée, comme dans le mot français actuellement encore en usage «brouhaha». C’est l’opinion, pour ce dernier mot, de Darmesteter et Hatzfeld.
    Le mot «haha» a survécu en Lorraine ou du moins dans nos Vosges,que j’habite. On dit couramment en parlant d’un événement tumultueux que l’on prévoit: cela fera du haha… PAUL ANCEL.

  26. The origin of brouhaha as “une simple onomatopée” has been disputed. The TLFi has a summary here. (This was the topic of an earlier post here at LH.)

  27. Ste Jeanne du Hahu and St Louis du Ha! Ha!

  28. David Marjanović says

    So, we finally know how babay was formed!

    o hai
    i maded you an internets
    but i eated it

  29. do folks with more sense of the trans-manche flow of words, or/and the vagaries of biblical translation, think joan’s “hahai!” is related to the “haha!” that the king james version has for what the horse in job says among the trumpets?

    (and now that i’m thinking about that (and shaffer’s Equus), i’m wondering if either is related to the kind of “haha” that one falls into while crossing an english garden)

  30. rozelle : you mean in the false wall sense?


    David Marjanović : your comment warmed my cold heart.

  31. There was a discussion of ha-ha back in 2011, starting here.

  32. Also, Jarry devoted Chapter 29 of “Faustroll” to the word “haha”:

  33. D. L. Gold says

    OED suggests Fr “brouhaha” is 15th C.”

    So far as I can tell, the currently earliest-known evidence for that French noun (meaning ‘confusion) is dated 1552 (Trésor de la langue française informatisé, s. v. brouhaha) see below).

    The conclusion of the following article is that the suggestion that French Brou, brou, ha, ha, Brou, ha, ha (> French brouhaha > English brouhaha) is of Jewish origin seems unlikely:

    “An Immediate or Non-Immediate Jewish Connection for Dutch poeha and Variants (> Afrikaans bohaai > South African English bohaai), French brouhaha (> English brouhaha), French Brou, brou, ha, ha, Brou, ha, ha, High German buhai and Variants, Low German buhê and Variants, or Modern West Frisian bahey and Variants Has Not Been Proven (With Remarks on the Jewish Italian or Liturgical Hebrew Origin of Arezzo Dialectal barruccaba and the Liturgical Hebrew Origin of Italian badanai)” (in Gold 2009:377-407).

    Gold, David L. 2009. Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages) / Selected and Edited, with a Foreword, by Félix Rodríguez González and Antonio Lillo Buades. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante.

    1. One version of the suggestion is that brou, ha, ha, Brou, brou, ha, ha comes from the occurrence of ברוך הבא in Psalm 118:26.

    How many non-Jewish francophones would have been familiar with the original of any part of the Jewish Bible before 1548? (See below on that date.) Of those, how many would have decided to pluck the phrase from that verse and adopt it in their French? How many other non-Jewish francophones would have adopted it from them?

    2. Another version is that non-Jews passing by a synagog (?) or synagogs (?) happened to hear the phrase. The objection raised in the preceding paragraph applies here too.

    3. Still another version is that non-Jews passing by Jewish houses happened to hear a male Jewish visitor greeted by that phrase, thus, in its sense of ‘welcome!’ (the greeting would have been said to one male). Brou ha ha, Brou ha, ha is not known to have ever meant *’welcome!’ Rather, it is first recorded as an interjection uttered by the Devil disguised as a priest in Roman Catholic religious plays with the aim of terrorizing people:
    “loc. interjective attribuée au diable, destinée à inspirer la terreur (Farce du Savetier, Ancien Théâtre fr., p. p. M. Viollet le Duc 1854, t. 2, p. 137 : Audin : Je prie à Dieu que le grant dyable Te puisse emporter. Le curé, habillé en dyable : Brou, brou, brou, ha, ha, Brou, ha, ha. Audin : Jésus, Notre-Dame! Le Grant dyable emporte ma femme)” (Trésor de la langue française informatisé, s. v. brouhaha).
    4. King Charles VI expelled all the Jews from France in 1394 and the currently earliest known use of Brou ha ha, etc. is dated 1548 (= the quotation from Farce di Savetier. Though not impossible, it is not likely that a pre-1394 borrowing would live an underground life for at least 154 years, that is, without surfacing during that time in at least one text known to us today.

    5. Though no examples come to mind, I have the impression that non-French/ x/, however realized, would be replaced by /k/ in French.

    None of the foregoing arguments is a clincher, but when considered together, they suggest that the French phrase seems not to be of Jewish origin.

    By contrast, a Jewish origin of one kind or another for Arezzo barruccaba and Italian badanai seems likely.

  34. @V: yes: trench as wall.

    and looking at the 2011 conversation, i have to say i’ve always found the “expression of surprise” etymology pretty unconvincing – i can’t think of many (or maybe even any) english nouns made from exclamations, at least right now.

    but it starts to look much more plausible if “hahai” (and its variations) had a longstanding use as a noun in french for various forms of cri and tumulte. that would make it a sensible choice for a garden-builder in england who needed a snappy and reasonably self-explanatory name for a surprising new kind of feature, since the folks able to afford a landscaped garden would have almost all known french (or been obliged to pretend they did).

  35. TLFI’s earliest occurrernce is from 1631, as ahah: “ce lapin et ce levrault sont pris au ahah.” They translate that meaning as «tout obstacle interrompant brusquement un chemin». I couldn’t find the original but 19th century editions spell the word as <ah ah>.

  36. o! that seems like the perfect connection:

    «cri de guerre, cri d’alarme, cri de detresse, tumulte guerrier, cri, tumulte en général»
    “brusque interruption”
    «tout obstacle interrompant brusquement un chemin»
    “ditch that brusquely interrupts a walk across a field”

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    “ditch that brusquely interrupts a walk across a field”

    Aha! a haha.

  38. In English the meaning of random vowels, glottal stops and voiceless glottal fricatives seems at once consistently linked to a broad semantic range, but protean within that range — uh-oh, uh-uh, aha, ah-ah-ah, oh-ho, ha-ha and hey-hey (a la Jack Brickhouse). They seem to serve as rapid if not urgent pointers to something that has just happened, with a very general emotion attached – bad, frightening, surprising or exciting.

    Are there languages where that’s not true, making the suggestion of an external etymology necessary and plausible?

  39. Uh-uh is also a handy counting device.

  40. @Ryan:

    the vowels aren’t particularly random to my eye – you just laid out a pretty clearly defined subset, that strongly contrasts with other formally similar sets that have very different but equally clear clusters of meanings (“hee hee”, “heh heh”, “ha”) (“hi”, “hey”).

    and to my ear, “uh-uh” and “uh-oh” also don’t belong in the “aha”/”ha-ha” cluster: they apply before something happens, not after it’s noticed (and are unequivocally negative). i’d put them with similarly-voweled “uh” and “huh”, in a cluster centered on negative affect and confusion, rather than surprise.

    but again, “ha-ha” is the only noun here!* you can “have an aha moment”, but you can’t just “have an aha”, let alone “an oh-ho” (except in citational ways: “she muttered an uh-oh”). and that’s both why it needs an explanation, and why it seems likely to be found outside english.


    * neither “hoe” nor “ho” have any connection to the exclamation “ho!” (which i think is part of the “aha” cluster).

  41. >the vowels aren’t particularly random to my eye

    That’s not at all convincing. Uh-uh and uh-huh are antonyms, despite having the same doubled vowels. Ah-ah-ah is a stronger negation than uh-uh, undermining the suggestion of a semantic cluster around aha/ha-ha. Ha ha, hee hee and heh heh all mean the same thing. If there’s any pattern at all, it might be that the glottal stop is negative, glottal fricative expressive of surprise/recognition. But that seems a stretch to me.

    It’s not as rare as you believe to nominalize these expressions. “Made a ha-ha” much more commonly means “made something funny” than “made a hidden trench in a garden”. It definitely doesn’t mean “laughed”, so ha-ha is conceived as the thing that makes people laugh, which offers a parallel for the formation of hahay and brouhaha as nouns. “An uh-oh” is more common as a simple noun than citationally.

  42. David Marjanović says

    “An uh-oh”

    New to me – what does it mean? “Dangerous mishap”?

  43. @David Marjanović:

    “An uh-oh”

    New to me – what does it mean? “Dangerous mishap”?

    To my ear, it would only be something truly dangerous/harmful/consequential by (ironic/sarcastic) minimization. More usually, I think it would be something minor but probably messy, like spilling a container of (nontoxic) liquid. Probably nearly synonymous with “a boo-boo” or “an oopsie”.

  44. @Ryan:

    Ha ha, hee hee and heh heh all mean the same thing.

    Maybe I’ve watched/read too many cartoons and comics, but I’d argue that there are shades and connotations where the terms would not be used interchangeably.

    “Ha ha” — Given the famous Nelson Ha-ha, the would feel more mocking, or if not actually mocking, louder and more boisterous.
    “Hee hee” — quieter, subdued glee
    “Heh heh” — more subdued yet, and often with an element of smugness and or slyness.

  45. I agree with Owlmirror. Ha ha, hee hee and heh heh all mean the same thing only insofar as elm, maple, and birch all mean the same thing.

  46. PlasticPaddy says

    Ha ha can mean “you think that is funny, but I certainly do not”.

  47. Stu Clayton says

    And even so only maple is a syrup-enabler.

  48. Birch is also a syrup-enabler.

  49. Rozele was arguing for “similarly voweled clusters” with similar semantics distinct from other such vowel clusters. Ha, hee and heh have somewhat different meanings. But they’re similar enough to disprove Rozele’s assertion.

  50. i’m not arguing for airtight clusters – and who ever would, in a zone where there’s so much improvisation? but i do see several distinguishable semantic groups, generally correlated with different sets of vowels (obviously with the odd crossover: this is human language, not some chomskyan abstraction!), in what ryan was proposing as a single “random” assortment.

    i also can’t say i’ve ever heard “made a ha ha” or “an uh-oh” in any context, except maybe the patronizing register reserved for speaking to very young children. but ryan and i may well encounter quite different sets of lects.

    my fundamental point, though, is that “ha-ha” – the english noun – needs more explanation than handwaving at a set of exclamations that rarely get nominalized. that remains true in light of the examples ryan gave, which are both a very specific (and interesting) quasi-citational kind of nominalization: “a [thing that would cause a person to say] uh-oh”.

    i think that is very much the kind of nominalization that – in french – turned “hahai” (etc.) from a battle cry into a noun for «tumulte guerrier, tumulte en général» (not discounting the possibility of an earlier shift of the exclamation’s subject from ducks to dux). in english, however, that kind of nonce/citational nominalization of exclamations doesn’t seem to result in fixed nouns – or at least nobody here has thrown an example into the mix so far.

    the closest i can come up with are gilbert’s “here’s a howdy-do” (rather different to my ear, since it comes from a full utterance that’s been reduced into something that gets used as an exclamation) and “what a hoo-hah” (despite appearances not part of our exclamation family, but a general-purpose euphemism here defusing the blasphemy in something like “goddamn hullabaloo”, but elsewhere more straightforwardly “ass” [e.g. “up the hoo-hah”]).

  51. @rozele: In my experience (and Urban Dictionary agrees*) hoohaa (however spelled) normally means “vagina” (or “vagina and pudendum”), not “anus” or “rectum.”

    * Green’s gives both “the male or female genitals,” but of the two attestations, one is definitively female and the other unclear. I find using hoohaa for biologically male genitalia impossible.

  52. Lars Mathiesen says

    There is the feature of formal gardens called a ha-ha. Reputedly because that’s what you say when you almost fall off one.

  53. Some thoughts by Bhob Stewart on the word “hoohah,” including its use by Harvey Kurtzman and T. S. Eliot:

    Eric Partridge gives a usage c. 1920 as “water closet,” which is a new one to me.

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