Mark Liberman at Language Log discovers a usage new to him and me:

In the September 6 issue of Nature, a verb caught me up short (Phileppe Claeys and Steven Goderis, “Solar System: Lethal billiards“):

A huge collision in the asteroid belt 160 million years ago sent fragments bagatelling around the inner Solar System. One piece might have caused the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The only use I ever see for bagatelle is “a mere bagatelle”, with the occasional reference to Beethoven’s bagatelles. […] So I looked it up.
The OED gives the first sense of bagatelle as “A trifle, a thing of no value or importance”, and sense 1.b. as “A piece of verse or music in a light style”. But then comes

2. A game played on a table having a semi-circular end at which are nine holes. The balls used are struck from the opposite end of the board with a cue. The name is sometimes applied to a modified form of billiards known also as semi-billiards.

So apparently for some people, bagatelling is roughly the same as caroming.

Isn’t that interesting? To my fellow Americans, that is; I guess my Brit readers are familiar with the ‘game’ sense. Or are you?

Oh, and while I’m talking about Language Log, I can’t resist pointing to their discussion of the crockus (MetaFilter followup here).


  1. Dave Errington says

    Yes, as a 45-year old Brit I’m familiar with the game, though I’ve never actually seen it. I have seen (and played with) the child’s toy version that was a precurser (I assume) of the pinball machine. You can see a picture of one here:

  2. Never heard of bagatelle the game. Like a good Orientalist, I know it as ‘carom’.

  3. Oh God! I had a carom table when I was a kid. It looked much like this:
    It had little disks with hollow centers which you’d shoot into openings at each corner. You’d use small pool cues. However, it wasn’t called carom. It was from a Scandinavian company, probably either Swedish or Danish, and it had a completely different name. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called. According to this page:
    there’s a special variant played in Scandinavia. Does anyone here know what the Scandinavian variant of carom is called?

  4. John Emerson says

    I seem to remember “bagatelle” as a game mentioned in a work of English-language popular fiction ca. 1880-1930. Someone like Saki, O. Henry, Mark Twain.

  5. I’ve also seen “bagatelle” in this sense in a work of fiction. It was probably something by Georgette Heyer, who wrote her novels from 1921 to 1974 but set most of them between 1800 and 1820, with a few exceptions set in earlier periods. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it anywhere else.

  6. My family has an old wooden bagatelle game that we used to pull out after dessert when we had company over. I think it was my great-grandfather’s, and he probably got it in the t-e-e-n-s or twenties. I think the address on the label is for a company in Chicago.
    Ours is very similar to the one shown in Dave Errington‘s link, but it has a wooden cue rather than the plunger. And the buckets are a bit more complex and not symmetrically arranged.
    It was great fun to play when I was a kid, and I can still hear the sound the marble makes when you give it a hard whack and it travels up the track, bounces off the first stopper-nail, and makes its way to the bottom.
    I can’t remember the brand, but I recall that it had a metal label that carried an endorsement from some professional player (we had no clue who he was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if bagatelle was a side-business to manufacturing snooker cues or something).

  7. In Sweden this game goes by its French name, “Couronne”.

  8. Familiar.

  9. You mean you *don’t* have bagatelle?
    I was very jealous when my brother was given a wonderful wooden bagatelle board with metal balls to shunt and nails arranged as the scoring areas… almost exactly like this in fact.
    My children have had to make do with the tiny enclosed plastic versions made in China for crackers and the like.

  10. Thanks Erik. I’m pretty sure that the game I had didn’t have the name “couronne” but it’s definitely the same as the one in this picture:

  11. I only knew “bagatelle” in the sense you mention, and I’ll raise you: for an shamefully long time I thought it was a metaphor referring to some insubstantial European baked good.

  12. It looks like prehistoric pinball. I’ve seen non-electric games similiar to rr’s. As I remember, it didn’t even have a name. People either played it or not, but didn’t talk about it to my memory. It was definitely a kids’ game.

  13. I’ve ‘Carommed’ to convey the same imagery.

  14. Have played bagatelle most of my life, but I’ve *never* seen or heard it as a verb. On the other hand, I have come across “pinballing”, which merely refers to a semi-mechanical version of the same game.

  15. Siganus Sutor says

    Where does the word carom/carrom come from? Is it, as the OED puts it, an abbreviated form of carambole? That would be funny since ‘carom’ is the “local” (?) word used in the Indian subcontinent while carambolage is a European word of Indian origin.

  16. Siganus Sutor says

    carambolage is a European word of Indian origin
    Er… ‘carambole’ that is…

  17. I read this and immediately thought of Ralph Kramden of the Honeymooners saying, “That’s a mere bag of shells.” Check out the following:
    Re: A mere bagatelle my dear
    Posted by Bookworm on November 12, 2004 at 20:04:55:
    In Reply to: Re: A mere bagatelle my dear posted by Bruce Kahl on November 12, 2004 at 19:34:19:
    : : The radio announcer was reading a commercial involving bagatelles and then ad libbed: “it’s a mere bagatelle my dear”. Is this a famous line from a play or book? Or, is it just a phrase? An admittedly quick Google search didn’t give me a source. It did, however, confirm that this phrase is indeed used to denote a trifle.
    : Could it be a “mere bag of shells”?
    : I think this was made famous by Ralph Kramden as he was discussing something which he considered of no consequence with Ed.
    No, the phrase is indeed “a mere bagatelle, my dear”. I was just wondering if it was used in a literary work.
    According to Webster’s online dictionary:
    1. A light piece of music for piano.
    2. Something of little value or significance.
    3. (British) a table game in which short cues are used to knock balls into holes that are guarded by wooden pegs; penalties are incurred if the pegs are knocked over.
    Etymology: Bagatelle \Bag`a*telle”\, noun. [French expression, from Italian bagatella; compare to Prov. Italian bagata trifle, Old French bague, Pr. bagua, bundle. See Bag, noun.].
    Ur Mere Bagatelle Fiend

  18. I used to play bagatelle with my grandmother, for she had a board. I flattered myself I was rather good at it. Although since the only people I ever played were my grandmother and my grandfather this may not have international validity.
    Hang on, peers at definition… Well that’s not what I’D call bagatelle. I’d call that a form of billiards. My gran’s one was like Dave Errington’s one; rather like an early pinball machine.

  19. Appropos of nothing (probably), I grow a varied collection of Barberry bushes (Genus Berberis). They come large and small, red, yellow and green, ball-shaped, pillar-shaped, you name it. (I love them and have written about them before: Berberine Thoughts.
    Anyway, there is a TINY variety (a little mound of Barberry that grows 12″ to 16″ high) of the deciduous Japanese species named for Carl Peter Thunberg (I’ve written about him before too if anyone cares: A Linnæus Sandwich: Carl Peter Thunberg – Berberis thunbergii). THAT PARICULAR dwarf-dwarf variety is called “BAGATELLE.”
    Berberis thunbergii ‘Bagatelle’
    I have Bagatelles all over.

  20. michael farris says

    I’d heard (though I’d never use) ‘a mere bagatelle’ but I was more familiar with bagatelle from Polish where ‘bagatelizować’ means ‘dismiss (as unimportant), downplay’.
    I also assumed it was some sort of French baked good and find that I’m disappointed that I will never enjoy a fresh hot buttered bagatelle with my morning coffee….

  21. As coincidence would have it, The County Clerk, I just wrote about kookoo, in which zereshk (dried barberries, just as you say; B. vulgaris, I think) is the only non-supermarket ingredient. Since the photo you used is associated with an Iranian vegan blog, I’m further point out that zereshk polo is fine without the chicken you and Wikipedia refer to, or, as she did it, with mock chicken.

  22. Re Káriis Tulinii game: I (a Dane as per the email) know it by the name of “bob”. Too new to be in the ODS but my ‘concise’ dictionary says it’s from the English verb.

  23. I remember bagatelle games from my childhood, much the same as described above. Pinball machines were directly descended from them.
    I also had a notion that “bagatelle” had some specific meaning in relation to jewellry, but that may have come from its usage as “a trifling thing”, probably from some forgotten movie dialogue.

  24. I believe “bagatelle,” in addition to all the other meanings set out here, is the name of a cut of diamond.

  25. Bob! That’s what mine was called. Thanks Sili.

  26. Once again, the LH Truth Squad digs up buried treasure.

  27. I’d missed Michael Farris’ comment, but seeing it now the juxtaposition of “French” and “bagatel(le)” triggered a childhood memory.
    We do in Denmark have a ‘bread’ of sorts sold as “Franske bagateller”. I’m having trouble finding a good link (it’s late here), but here’s a start.
    They’re very light, hence the name I presume. Very sweet and insubstantial. I recall them as very sweet – and nice with butter. But I don’t think they take well to reheating. I’ll gladly try finding some tomorrow, but I have no idea how to mail them without them crumbling.

  28. It sort of looks like the progenitor of the larger-scale and considerably simpler Skeet Ball, which you see at arcades sometimes.

  29. marie-lucie says

    I don’t know bagatelle as a game, but the main meaning is indeed trifle, trifling thing, applied in various contexts. In 19C French literature there is often a (usually secondary) male character described as porté sur la bagatelle lit. ‘inclined to the trifle’, meaning ‘(casual) sex’.

  30. Here, bagatela! is an exclamation which basically means ‘a trifle’, but is used ironically rather than literally. For example, Musiałem zapłacić — bagatela — pięćset złotych ‘I had to pay a mere 500 zlotys’ (implying that the sum was extortionate).

  31. Sili’s Franske Bagateller are these. I think they were called Franska Bagateller on the Swedish market as well, until Wasa decided that English names would probably sell better. Confusing a generation of young Danish mothers looking for the stuff they were fed as babies themselves…

    Last time I played bob was at my sister’s 50th birthday last year. There’s at least two tables in use in the extended family. (The Danish version does not have the singular “queen” of Carrom, though). Luxury version from a billiards manufacturer.

    I also remember playing the proto-pinball game with little nails and holes for scoring as a child, but I don’t remember the name we used.

    And bagatel in general means a trifle, a small, insignificant issue. As any other word in Danish, it’s liable to be used ironically — but add lille, and we’re talking sarcasm. Så mangler vi bare den lille bagatel med regningen, min ven.

  32. In German, Bagatelle also means “trifle”, and bagatellisieren means “downplay”.

  33. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    A correction to my post 7 years ago: The link to the luxury bob table still works, and looking at it again I see that it does indeed have two larger bobs for striking, one per player. (And not a singular neutral-color “queen”). But I still maintain that our house rules did not use such, we were allowed to hit any bob with the queue.

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