Baselard, Badelaire.

I happened on the extremely obscure word badelaire, which the OED defines as “A short cutting sword or dagger with a broad, slightly curving blade” (with cites from 1693 to 1980: “I heard the ring of steel on stone, as if someone had struck one of the grave markers with a badelaire,” G. Wolfe, Shadow of Torturer i. 12), and on checking the etymology found:

< French badelaire, baudelaire (1300 in Old French; now only in heraldry), of uncertain origin. Compare baselard n. and discussion at that entry.

So of course I compared baselard and found:

Now historical.

A type of long dagger or short sword with a hilt shaped like a capital H on its side (becoming more like a capital I over time), usually worn at the girdle by civilians.
The baselard was particularly popular in the 14th and 15th centuries in north and northwest Europe.

c1390 Now is non worþ a fart, But he bere a baselart I-honget bi his syde. in C. Horstmann, Minor Poems of Vernon Manuscript (1892) i. 336 (Middle English Dictionary)

2003 ‘Well, I have my dagger,’ Ulric said, patting his belt. Juliana saw a flash as if an old baselard hung there, but then it disappeared. E. Holly, Hunting Midnight 41

And the etymology was satisfyingly chatty:

Probably < post-classical Latin basalardus, baselardus, basilardus, bazalardus (from c1349 in British sources) and its probable etymon Anglo-Norman baslard, baslarde, baselard, baselarde, basillard (1388 or earlier: see below) and Middle French basalart (1388), of unknown origin (compare -ard suffix); a derivation ultimately < the place name Basel in Switzerland is perhaps possible (see C. Blair in Jrnl. Arms & Armour Soc. vol. 11 (1983–5) 193–206); it is uncertain whether there is any connection with post-classical Latin baselardus base coin (see baseling n.¹). The relationship with Middle French badelaire, badelare, baselaire type of short sword (14th cent.) is also uncertain; for borrowing of this word into Older Scots see Dict. Older Sc. Tongue at Baslar(e, Baislar n.; it was probably also borrowed into Middle Low German as bēseler, bāseler.

There’s a discussion, with an illustration, at The Gentleman’s Magazine: Or, Monthly Intelligencer of July 1858, pp. 558ff; while I probably wouldn’t have the chutzpah to write “as if someone had struck one of the grave markers with a badelaire” myself, I’m glad Gene Wolfe did.


  1. Gene Wolfe tends to use interestingly obscure words; you get used to it. Thanks for tracing this one down.

  2. Keith Ivey says

    Yes, I wonder how many other basically obsolete words Gene Wolfe has the most recent citation for.

  3. David D. says

    Nice post. I echo the other comments that one of the joys of Wolfe’s work is his use of obscure vocabulary, and I’m glad to see that the OED is including him in their citations. In this particular quotation badelaire seems very well chosen — it almost feels like a word that one should know, at the edge of one’s vocabulary.

  4. Yes, exactly!

  5. Something was tugging at my brain when I saw the word, but I think it was the (unrelated, I’m sure) French term for the tarot card “The Magician” – “Le Bateleur”, which seems to be related to “bateau” (but I’m guessing this was a magic wand or something and not a boat).

  6. Christopher Culver says

    I immediately recalled both of these words from the 1990s video game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where the main character can be equipped with a number of swords of obscure name – I remember “falchion” and “talwar” as well. It may be that with “badelaire” the English translators of the game made recourse to a word they knew from Gene Wolfe; I vaguely recall some other name there that surely came from Wolfe.

  7. @Keith Ivey: Wolfe has the most recent OED citation for aigrette, alouatte, badelaire, bitterness (sense 3, “as a count noun”: “They were locked up in their own bitternesses and told us little”), bureau (II.4, “Chiefly North American. A chest of drawers”), fair (3a, “With the and plural agreement. Attractive people, esp. women, as a class; members of the ‘fair sex’ collectively”), feet foremost, gambade, ice isle, monach, monial, monomachist, nankeen yellow, and suppose (I.i.9.c.ii., “With simple object (chiefly pronoun)” – “‘That’s what I’d always supposed myself.’”)

    He’s also quoted for abacination, fulgurator, and nankeen yellow.

  8. As the NED fascicles were published, not a few writers browsed for obs. and arch. words to revive.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    AG: Could it have been the family from the Series of Unfortunate Events? Not that I’ve read it, but that turned out to be what was lurking at the edge of my mind!

  10. suppose (I.i.9.c.ii., “With simple object (chiefly pronoun)” – “‘That’s what I’d always supposed myself.’”)

    Are they implying that the object of “supposed” is “myself”? Because that’s manifestly not the case:

    “That started me thinking. There are five councillors in the Ayuntamiento. Where do they live?”

    She shrugged. “On the hill, I guess.”

    “That’s what I’d always supposed myself. […]”

  11. I don’t suppose so: the object is what in the Wolfe example and in yours.

  12. Ah, OK then. (My example is the Wolfe example; I just quoted more of it for context.)

  13. Of course it is, I should read more carefully.
    Other OED examples for this sense are more transparent, like “everybody supposed it” and “Certainly I suppose that”.

  14. John Cowan says

    Someone wasn’t paying attention to the fact that myself can be a subject pronoun when it is emphatic and in apposition to I: “I did that because I myself can’t draw hands!” (Linus Van Pelt)

  15. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is usually known as “SOTN” (pronounced SO-t’n). In many CRPG and metroidvania* games, there are lots and lots of items that can be randomly dropped by defeated enemies, and their names can be unusual. The Castlevania games tend to use a mixture of obscure terms for actual items, made up words, and proper names from fiction and folklore: for example, Gurthang, Gram, and Varda’s ring from SOTN.

    * The genre was well established before the term metroidvania was coined. Moreover, while the Metroid games mostly belonged to the genre right from the beginning, there were about a half dozen non-metroidvania games in the Castlevania series before SOTN changed the direction of the franchise.

  16. Eh, I’ve been reading Wolfe’s books for something like 40 years off and on, and as someone with an embarrassingly wide vocabulary, I at first took Wolfe for a slightly exaggerated version of myself. I take him at his word, though, when he claims to write as if translating, and pretends he chooses words in existence for things that don’t have a close correspondence in our world/time. It is tricky. I keep a little spot of imagination cleared just for when he says things like “badelaire”, which I already knew the meaning of from character building in tabletop RPGs. Therefore I know he meant something very much like, “a short stout blade with no special characteristics that anyone could carry at their waist as an item of everyday dress without occasioning comment, thus nobody would notice anyone carrying it at night or into a secluded place, and the wielder could plausibly deny they contemplated any harm with it, yet the sound of it unsheathed and striking stone, meaning, as it did, that it was carried to the side by someone whose attention was on a target, alarmed me the way the sound of drawing the hammer back on a pistol would alarm my reader, if you were on a walk alone at night”. The character Severian is a ludicrously pathological overthinker. (Takes one to know one, haha.)

    Indeed, the fact that he could identify the specific weapon by sound makes me think the name is possibly being used for a common concealed-carry energy weapon like a miniature lightsabre. Wolfe is always using low-tech words for high-tech concepts.

  17. One of the things that some people apparently like about Wolfe is, as Speedwell says, his use of obscure terms for fictional things. I personally do not care for it, however. Readers familiar with a marginal word (such as destrier) may initially wonder whether the term is being used literally or to refer to something that has no real-world referent; or, with other usages (peltast), wonder why Wolfe picked such seemingly inapposite “translations.” Unlike a lot of readers, I guess I found this more awkward than entertaining.

  18. Badelaire also occurs in Finnegans Wake:

    Where the Baddelaires partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons catapelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head.

    According to a note at Joyce learned about the word from a book about the language of Rabelais.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Wolfe is always using low-tech words for high-tech concepts.

    That’s frankly unrealistic. More realistic is using a good proportion of no-tech words (blaster) and barely recognizable abbreviations of high-tech words (nuke).

  20. Wolfe has rarely been accused of realism.

  21. Wolfe gave his definition of badelaire (and other unusual words from The Shadow of the Torturer) in “Words Weird and Wonderful,” an essay in Castle of Days:

    A short, heavy, curved, single-edged sword with S-shaped quillons. Wilkinson’s Swords and Daggers shows a beautiful one in Plate 32. He says it’s a “very fine falchion-like sword.” Well, yes, it’s much more like a falchion than a can-opener; but it’s a badelaire.

    Most of the other definitions are previewable on Google Books.

  22. ktschwarz says

    No anniversary post this year? Somebody should take the blog out for a legal drink. You deserve all the congratulations, anyway, and thanks for enriching my life.

  23. Oops, I totally forgot! I guess after the twenty-year mark, it all starts to get vague. For that matter, I have to think to remember exactly how old I am these days…

  24. John Cowan says

    Just remember your birthday and your family members’ birthdays and then calculate. That’s what I’ve been doing for decades now. At least birthdays don’t change.

  25. Baudelaire on baudelaire according to Georges Barral.

  26. That’s a great quote, thanks!

Speak Your Mind