Still reading A Sentimental Journey, I found myself completely flummoxed by this passage:

Having settled all these little matters, I got into my post-chaise with more ease than ever I got into a post-chaise in my life; and La Fleur having got one large jack-boot on the far side of a little bidet, and another on this (for I count nothing of his legs) – he canter’d away before me as happy and as perpendicular as a prince.

Like many Americans, I have had my own moments of confusion when confronted by a French bidet, but I had never had one canter away before me. A look at the OED enlightened me:

[a. French bidet pony; of unknown origin: cf. Old French bider (Godefroy) to trot. In 16th cent. the F. word meant also some small kind of dagger. (The Celtic comparisons made by Diez and Littré are rejected by Thurneysen.)]
1. A small horse.
1630 B. Jonson Chlorid. Wks. (1838) 656, I will returne to myself, mount my bidet, in a dance; and curvet upon my curtal. 1828 I. D’Israeli Chas. I, I. ii. Then there are thanks for two bidets which Henry sends him. 1863 Sala Capt. Dangerous II. vi. 202, I trotted behind on a little Bidet.
2. ‘A vessel on a low, narrow stand, which can be bestridden’ (Syd. Soc. Lex.) for bathing purposes.

I quote my old dead-tree Compact Edition because my computer was off when this occurred. The online edition, while substantially the same, has added a few quotes for the newer sense; the first is from Tobias Smollett’s 1766 Travels through France and Italy I. v. 64: “Will custom exempt from the imputation of gross indecency a French lady, who shifts her frousy smock in presence of a male visitant, and talks to him of her lavement, her medecine, and her bidet!” It was Smollett whom Sterne satirized as the “learned Smelfungus,” who “set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. – He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.”


  1. As OED (2) suggests, some anonymous wit must have named the hygienic convenience after the pony, since one mounts them in the same way.
    When I first visited Spain, I was puzzled to find that la zarzuela was the name of a seafood melange, a form of musical comedy, and the palace where the king lived. I discovered that the transference went in the reverse order: the palace was where the indigenous musical first arose, and the dish was named after the musical because both mix many things together. (Zarzuela, the musical, includes operatic and popular song, as well as spoken dialogue.)

  2. Fascinating, I love stuff like that! And Spanish Wikipedia tells me the name of the palace “alude a la abundancia de zarzas” (Rubus ulmifolius); zarza itself may be of pre-Roman origin.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Shouldn’t a late equestrian term like that be Germanic? May I suggest the pair *bido:n- “wait” / *bi:dan- “suffer; wait”? The causative *baidijan- has reflexes meaning “force, egg on, demand, etc.”. The core meaning of the root would seem to be “endure”.

  4. Hat, your previous post reminded me that, although I read Tristram Shandy some thirty years ago with great pleasure, I had never gotten around to anything else by Sterne, — so now I’m reading A Sentimental Journey, and I’m delighted with it. I half-expected the mini-chapter called BIDET to be about an Englishman’s confusion in the face of unfamiliar plumbing, and was a little relieved when it was not.
    Man, I love Sterne’s casual style, and the way he shifts the story into super-low gear while he explores the flow of feelings and the way people communicate. Essay question: compare and contrast the writing of Laurence Sterne and Henry James.

  5. unfamiliar plumbing, and was a little relieved
    All of us here at the Hattery are pleased to learn of your condition.

  6. Thank you, Paul. I hoped someone would swing at that one.

  7. so now I’m reading A Sentimental Journey, and I’m delighted with it.
    I am very pleased to hear it! In case you’re as curious about urban geography as I, I found an essay, “Sterne at Paris and Versailles,” in The London Magazine, Vol. 1 (1825), that places Sterne’s Hotel de Modene at rue Jacob 14 (if this is correct and the current numbering is the same, the address is now the Zéro de Conduite bar) and points out that the Opéra-Comique was at the time the same as the Théatre-Italien and was in the Théatre de l’Hotel de Bourgogne (of Cyrano fame) on rue Mauconseil.

  8. Bragging rights go to the highest bidet.

  9. 1828 I. D’Israeli Chas. I, I. ii. Then there are thanks for two bidets which Henry sends him.
    I noticed a plaque last week on a quite large house on the west side of Bloomsbury Square, two blocks from the British Museum, saying that Isaac Disraeli had lived there. I’m surprised that he could have made enough money as a writer to have lived in such a comparatively grand house.

  10. The WiPe on the history of Bloomsbury Square says:

    By the early 19th century, Bloomsbury was no longer fashionable with the upper classes. Consequently the Duke of Bedford of the day moved out of Bedford House, which was demolished and replaced with further terraced houses. In the 19th century the square was occupied mainly by middle class professionals. The writer Isaac D’Israeli lived at No. 6 from 1817 to 1829 and for part of that time his son, the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli lived with him. In the 20th century most of the buildings came to be used as offices.

  11. Ok, he wasn’t the Duke of Earl. But I still don’t see how he was making that kind of money writing not especially popular books.

  12. If I could wave a magic wand and make 3 things commonly used by everyone everywhere, the bidet would probably be #1 on that list. It disgusts and saddens me that they haven’t caught on here in the United States–simply using dry toilet paper is filthy and unpleasant.
    Did you know that in Japan not only do they have bidets but also that the toilets (most of which are electronic) can also play music to cover up any embarrassing noises the occupant might produce in the process of…um, ‘doing their business’? Very cool. I also seem to recall that the seats are heated and the water used in the bidet is warm.
    We need those toilets.

  13. Trond Engen says

    play music to cover up any embarrassing noises the occupant might produce in the process of…um, ‘doing their business’
    Don’t make me flush.

  14. Trond Engen says

    simply using dry toilet paper is filthy and unpleasant.
    Als Alternative dazu entwirft Platon die Utopie eines „gesäuberten“ Bidealstaates.
    [No I can’t write German like that. I stole it from Wikipedia]

  15. Andrew, what is #2?

  16. #2s is #1.

  17. You guys! When you get going . . !
    Andrew is absolutely right.

  18. Crown: I still don’t see how he was making that kind of money writing not especially popular books.
    The WiPe on Isaac Disraeli:

    His most popular work was a collection of essays entitled Curiosities of Literature. The work contained a myriad of anecdotes about historical persons and events, unusual books, and the habits of book-collectors. The work was very popular and sold widely in the 19th century, reaching its eleventh edition (the last to be revised by the author) in 1839. It is still in print. His book The Life and Reign of Charles I (1828) resulted in his being awarded the degree of D.C.L. from Oxford University.

    Isaac and his wife both came from “London merchant families”. It seems there was enough dough to go around.

  19. Thank you, Stu. I see from the Oxford DNB that in 1791 he inherited his maternal grandmother Esther Syprut’s entire fortune. That’s where his money came from, it says. His father had imported Leghorn straw hats from Italy and was a founding member of the London Stock Exchange, but there’s nothing about Isaac inheriting anything. His 5 vol. Commentaries on the Life & Reign of Charles I wasn’t published until 1828-30, so those earnings didn’t help him with the Bloomsbury Square house. At death he was worth £10,803, really quite a lot. The “D.C.L.” was an honorary doctor of civil law degree. Apparently he was highly regarded by Byron.
    I can’t explain why this interests me except that I’ve always admired Benjamin Disraeli, he’s the only Tory I can stand apart from Winston Churchill & Robert Peel.

  20. At death he was worth £10,803
    I’ve occasionally wondered whether, in olden times, such statements included claims on others, current valuations of property etc, or were sometimes just statements of liquidity, i.e. Cäsh in der Täsch (Kölsch loc. = “cash in the pocket”, here gold in the bank). I suppose it doesn’t make much sense to ask about “liquidity” without knowing anything specific about what counted as “liquidity” at the time.

  21. Yes, exactly. It must be just his bank balance, don’t you think? I thought of trying to translate that ten thousand into modern money on some index, but even if you can compare wages it’s impossible to compare the purchasing power. London’s current house prices are completely out of whack with the rest of the country and with the past, and a houseful of 18-19C. furniture & art would have also appreciated disproportionately to other costs, so where do you start?

  22. It must be just his bank balance, don’t you think?
    Yes, I do, but how could one find out whether that is what the DNB means by “he was worth”, assuming that is how the DNB actually put it ? It seems like a horribly difficult research problem for a layman like myself. Aren’t at least some economists supposed to know about things like that, even though they spend most of their time swanning about in their abstrusely mathematical zoot suits ?

  23. Were there estate duties at that time?

  24. The WiPe on inheritance tax (Great Britain) says: “From 1796, inheritance taxes, then called legacy, succession and estate duties were collected, in England and Wales on estates over a certain value.”.
    According to this source, “succession duties” of from 1% to 10% were collected “for a long time”, apparently at the latest from 1796 on. It also gives this very interesting origin for inheritance tax:

    in the U.K People have been turning pale at the thought of various ‘death taxes’ ever since they were first introduced in 1796 in order to finance the war against Napoleon Bonaparte.

  25. Nowadays it’s zero for the first £300,000 or so, and then it’s 40% of everything above that. I think I read that the government takes in about £2.5 billion a year that way.

  26. Not a whole lot, after all ! And only a few people affected.

  27. If I were the devil’s advocate I might say it unfairly affects Londoners, where the value of someone’s house is very likely to be well over £300,000. I’d rather they cut the defense budget by two billion.

  28. marie-lucie says

    It might be that different kinds of property are taxed differently, or different inheritors (such as a surviving spouse vs some great-nephews).

  29. It might be that different kinds of property are taxed differently, or different inheritors (such as a surviving spouse vs some great-nephews).
    An estate tax is levied on the estate of the deceased. An inheritance tax is levied on the inheritors. Real property, stocks and so forth are often deemed to have been sold on the date of death of the deceased. Forced heirship laws in many civil law jurisdictions complicate the matter; the common-law trust and the continental foundation can often mitigate the tax burden.
    See here for a substantial treatment of the subject.
    Disclosure: This is a shameless promotion for a book of which I was managing editor.
    Trusts & Trustees is one of the more important journals in the field. STEP is a global association of trust and estate practitioners.

  30. Here’s a variety of useful historical currency converters. The one for U.K. pounds shows that £10,803 in 1848 had, as of 2010:

    • a purchasing power (what you could buy with it) of £846,000;
    • an economic status value (equivalent in prestige) of £11,500,000;
    • an economic power value (share of the gross domestic product) of £25,700,000.

    My guess would be that this was his net worth (all assets, including the market value of land, minus all liabilities).

  31. Paul: Thanks, especially for the journal; but the book, it’s £147.00. I could get an hour’s worth of British lawyer for that. I suppose you mostly sell it to law firms.
    John: this is a great example of how those converters totally don’t work. Here are a couple of pictures of Isaac’s house on his death (he probably had other property too, but we’ll just count this): Bradenham Manor, in Bucks. According to your converter, in 2010, one could easily have bought it or an equivalent for, well, let’s say the whole £846,000. High Wycombe is classic stockbroker belt, the equivalent of say Old Greenwich, Connecticut. That ‘purchasing power’ price is a sick joke. Luckily it’s owned by the National Trust, but with the land it’s probably worth more like £20-40 million, depending on how much land it had. That fits with ‘share of the GDP = £25m.’, but if Bradenham Manor had been in Scotland I’d bet it wouldn’t be worth more than about £1.5m., so again it’s a useless conversion.
    I like the primrose photograph at Bradenham. The primrose was very well known to be Benjamin Disraeli’s favourite flower, and he must have first seen them there when he was a child.

  32. No, no, no. I now find that he rented the bloody house. Never mind.
    Benjamin Disraeli bought Hughendon in 1848, on his father’s death. What a comedown. It’s got to be one of the ugliest, most dismal houses in Buckinghamshire and I see from Wikipedia that its current appearance is mostly thanks to Dizzy’s own architect.

  33. That architect of Disraeli’s, Edward Buckton Lamb, seems to have been the William Mcgonagall of architecture. Just look at this, with the little spire on the corner of the tower.

  34. According to David Farringdon in the Oxford DNB,

    Lamb was the ‘arch-rogue’ of High Victorian inventiveness—the bête noire of the Ecclesiologists. His quasi-centralized church plans in the tradition of Wren, and his highly mannered interpretation of late English Perpendicular Gothic, earned him but the bitter enmity of the pious Camdenians.

    I don’t know if anyone else finds this stuff interesting. I think it’s hilarious.

  35. That man must be dead inside who could not enjoy the phrase “the bitter enmity of the pious Camdenians.”

  36. I might have laughed sooner if your stuff were not so worldly – people and things I’ve never heard of, and not a theory in sight. Well, at least I can now rejoice in the knowledge of who William McGonagall is – “the world’s worst poet”:

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

    I found that out all by myself, and I see the connection with the work of Disraeli’s architect. But perhaps you can help me with English Perpendicular Gothic. Is there also a Horizontal version ?

  37. Thanks, Language.
    Yes, Stu. Architecture is about stuff, though many people would have you believe it’s about theories.
    I’m not sure who the pious Camdenians were. Perpendicular Gothic is an English Gothic style. The most famous example is probably King’s College Chapel at Cambridge. The well-known revival example of Perpendicular is the Houses of Parliament in London, aka The Palace of Westminster. It was built after the old parliament burned down, in 1834, watched from the other side of the River Thames by England’s greatest painter, JMW Turner.

  38. “Pious Camdenians” may be a reference to the Cambridge Camden Society. “Later known as the Ecclesiological Society … [it] was a learned architectural society founded in 1839 by undergraduates at Cambridge University to promote ‘the study of Gothic Architecture, and of Ecclesiastical Antiques.’ “.

  39. Even if Isaac had owned the house, durable goods like houses aren’t normally counted in purchasing power computations, which are based on a market basket of food, clothing, and so on. Shelter gets figured in as equivalent rent; the value of a house is equal to the net present value of an infinite stream of rent payments (infinite for the land, at least, and a century or more for the house).

  40. AJP: Yes, the book has a stiff price, but I’m not at all sure you could buy an hour of a London lawyer’s time for that sum. Half an hour or even less seems more like it. As you suggest, the book is aimed at a professional audience. To date, its three editions together have probably sold no more than 2,500 copies. A nice chunk of change for the publisher (do the math), though rest assured I saw a vanishingly small flat fee for my efforts.
    Take-away lesson from the book: If you own real property in a country other than that of your residence or citizenship; if you have dual citizenship; if your kids live in another country; or if any similar non-standard situation obtains, an everyday office-above-a-shoe-store lawyer lacks the expertise to deal with your succession affairs.

  41. John, durable goods like houses aren’t normally counted in purchasing power computations…Shelter gets figured in as equivalent rent
    It’s location, location and location: the three most important points in property. I was trying to say that there’s a huge discrepancy in housing prices today, and in Britain there’s an inflation that’s based mostly on how close the property is to central London. So a magnificent estate in Northumberland – 15 bedrooms, rolling acres of peasant-shooting – would cost you about the same as a 2-bedroom Victorian flat in Notting Hill (£1.5m). Housing is by far the largest proportion of the goods and services any one person ever buys, but its current worth can’t be accurately estimated based simply on year.
    Paul, You’re quite right about the cost of solicitors in London which is two-three times the hourly rate I said. Thanks for your takeaway lesson, I’ll look into it.

  42. Stu, Yes, that’s it! I swear, everything I need to know about the Church of England can be found in the Language Hat Comments (Language may quote me on that).

  43. rolling acres of peasant-shooting
    Indeed. About time that came back into fashion.

  44. AJP: Certainly. As a resident of NYC, I am more than familiar with this phenomenon. Indeed, the 1873 pre-Old-Law tenement that I live in had, when it was built, a far higher per-square-foot rental than luxury buildings on Park Avenue. For hysterical raisins, I don’t pay (economic) rent on it, only maintenance and prudent reserve, which makes it cost around $600 per month instead of $3000 for comparable apartments in the neighborhood. (New Yorkers, fire your brickbats!)

  45. I was paying about $650 for my 1 BR rent-stabilized sixth-floor New-Law walkup by the time I left New York in 1994. I felt I was being bled dry even though I knew that comparatively it was very cheap. I considered a hefty rent was anything more than about $200, as it had been when I moved to NY in 1977. New Yorkers, when you first meet them, have always cut immediately to talking about their rent.

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, AJP if you’re going to open the bidding by complaining about a 1994 rent which was maybe 25% less than what I paid for a 1 BR tenement walkup (ok, only 4th floor) when I first moved to Manhattan in ’92 . . .

  47. Yeah. I know it was low, because it was rent-stabilized and I’d had it since 1981. But it didn’t seem low. What, were you just out of law school or something? I don’t know how young people coped with rents like that.

  48. John Woldemar Cowan says

    compare and contrast the writing of Laurence Sterne and Henry James

    Both are stream of consciousness, but Sterne’s consciousness is sprightly and delightful, whereas James’s consciousness is stuffy and boring. Thuryago.

    historical currency converter is now the go-to source for that. But you do have to be careful and read the fine print on each number it provides, and not be fooled by the sometimes-misleading labels.

Speak Your Mind