Dave Wilton posted a Big List article about the history of the word bizarre that begins:

Bizarre is a word with a rather straightforward etymology. English borrowed it from French in the mid seventeenth century, which in turn had borrowed it from the Italian bizarro. But that has not stopped some baseless speculation about a weirder origin of the word.

The original Italian meaning of bizarro is angry. The word appears in Dante’s early 14th century Divine Comedy. […] In later Italian usage, bizarro developed the meaning of strange or odd, and French borrowed this meaning in the early sixteenth century. And this sense was borrowed into English in the mid seventeenth century. Edward Herbert, a soldier, diplomat, poet, and philosopher, is the first person known to have used bizarre in English. […]

Despite the etymology of bizarre being a rather ordinary one, a false etymology developed claiming that it comes from the Basque bizarra, meaning beard. The false etymology developed not only because the words are superficially similar, but perhaps out of a desire that a word meaning odd should not have an ordinary history, and also perhaps because Basque is a tempting language to associate with any word. […]

In this case, the guilty party appears to be the nineteenth-century French lexicographer Émile Littré, who first put forward the idea that bizarre comes from the Basque word for beard. His argument is simple and, at first blush, tempting. In Spanish, bizarro means brave or gallant, and the phrase hombre de bigote (literally, man with a moustache) means a man of spirit, of bravery. The Spanish must, Littré reasoned, have gotten the word, with its association with facial hair, from their next-door neighbors, the Basques. His argument is seemingly bolstered by the fact that in early French use, bizarre could also mean brave. Littré believed French had borrowed the word from Spanish.

Unfortunately for Littré and his argument, the borrowing goes the other way. Bizarre is not attested in Spanish until the late sixteenth century, well after it was established in French. It seems that the Spanish borrowed the brave sense of the word from French. The evolution from anger to bravery is a natural one, just think of the wrath of Achilles, a great warrior, that drives the plot of the Iliad. The brave sense eventually fell out of use in French, but it held on in Spanish, where it is the primary meaning of the word today.

I confess that if I once knew about the Spanish meaning, I’d forgotten. But apparently it’s now also used by some in the English sense; at the Wordorigins discussion thread, cuchuflete says “The Royal Academy, sternly wagging a proscriptivist finger, acknowledges its existence and counsels against such usage.” See links for details.


  1. Dan Milton says

    I’d like to go a bit further than Italian bizarro angry which is as far as the OED takes it.
    Wiktionary says It. bizza “tantrum” is of Germanic origin, thought to be from German beißen (to bite), but their reference, Treccani on line Vocabolario, only says “etimo incerto

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Made me wonder about the etymology of “bazaar”, which seems, satisfyingly enough, to come from an Old Iranian compound meaning “trade-walkabout.” Does what it says on the tin …

  3. And further, apparently, to Proto-Indo-European *wes- ‘buy/sell’ + *kʷel- ‘turn.’

  4. I remember wondering at one point whether the old Italian meaning, “angry,” had had any impact on the Superman character Bizarro. I think it is consistent in Bizarro’s various origin stories that, after being created as an imperfect copy of Superboy or Superman, he adopts his name from a mishearing of someone calling him “bizarre.” While not intrinsically a bag guy, Bizarro (and his many additional duplicates) do tend to have a temper problem.

    Moreover, while the OED still has no entry, bizarro has become a perfectly good English word. I imagine that the etymology is a combination of direct borrowing of the older Italian etymon and modification of English bizarre, the later probably mostly inspired by the comic book character.

  5. I assumed I’d find the word borrowed into Catalan, but there’s not a trace, it seems. In Spanish, it must have been exclusively literary from the outset and remained so, which left the other meanings open to being supplanted by the meaning ‘bizarre’ -a fact, incidentally, that the RAE and ASALE have come to accept with updated definitions of the word since 2021.

  6. Interesting, thanks for the update!

  7. @Andy:

    I assumed I’d find the word borrowed into Catalan, but there’s not a trace, it seems

    The old ‘gallant’ meaning was adopted as bisarro, and is obsolete but attested:

    En aquest punt me arriba Don Guillem Armengol ab cent homens de socorro, y molt bisarro

    The new one comes up sometimes as bizarro but also as phonologically adjusted bissarro

    Ho trobo molt bizarro

    És un dels jocs que a dia de hui encara trobe molt bissarro

  8. @Alon Lischinsky: Marvellous, thank you!

  9. No worries!

    Josep Sacosta, author of the first quote, was one of the captains under Tamarit in the Reaper’s War — one thinks that should be more than enough cachet to get the term into the GDLC

  10. It does seem a random omission. I wouldn’t have thought to look for ‘bisarro’ with a single s anyway (suggestive perhaps of a borrowing direct from French, rather than from Spanish?), but now I know, I did at least find it in the Diccionari català-valencià-balear.

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