I’ve finished Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which jamessal gave me last year (and for which I have given him fervent thanks) — it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years, and my mind is still turning it over and thinking of things like parallels with Mrs. Dalloway (see this LH post). However, I’m not capable of an analysis of the book at this point, so I will just mention one of the vocabulary items it introduced me to, boulle (also spelled buhl, which is the OED’s main lemma), which means (per the OED) “Brass, tortoise-shell, or other material, worked into ornamental patterns for inlaying” (an oddly general term, if you ask me — brass isn’t really very much like tortoiseshell) and comes from the “name of a wood-carver in France in the reign of Louis XIV.” It occurs near the start of the novel (“the boulle clock ticked on in its place on the mantelpiece”) and near the end (“The boulle clock ticked, with mindless vigilance”) and a couple of times in between, providing one of the many lexical and thematic strands that tie the book together. (It also reminds me, irrelevantly, of Pierre Boulle, a name probably remembered by few nowadays.)


  1. Irrelevantly, I very much remember the name of Pierre Boulle, who remains in my memory as the puzzling progenitor of middlebrow Anglo-American entertainments of my early childhood in which any French (i.e. exotic, duplicitous, over-sophisticated and totally unwarranted) origin was already felt to be incomprehensibly unnatural, rather as if it was revealed that George Formby was the original author of the Mahabharata. I still don’t get it, although I no longer care.

  2. Jacqueline dubois says

    Just for you information, in Paris, there is a famous Art and Craft School named after André-Charles Boulle (not Pierre, a 20th-century French novelist who wrote ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’ ) which is called ‘Ecole Boulle’ ( so that in France not everyone knows who he really was or what he achieved in particular but assumes he was a talented artisan under Louis XIV (which he was).

  3. Indeed this word comes from André-Charles Boulle, a very famous french ‘ébéniste’ from the 17th century, whose name is associated to a technique of marquetry using brass, tin, other woods , tortoiseshell etc… to create foliate designs on furniture. But I have never seen in French his name used as an adjective, as in Holinghurst’s novel; while you can find for example occurrences of ‘un bureau Boulle’ (a boulle writing desk), it is an ellipsis for “a writing desk made by Boulle” or “a writing desk displaying Boulle’s marquetry technique”.

    On another point, looking for translation it appears that ‘ébéniste’ does not have an exact translation in English, while in French it is a very common word that differs from ‘wood carver’ (menuisier). It denotes a craftsman who produces cased and decorated furniture, and doesn’t refer anymore to the use of ebony (though this wood can be used in marquetry for example), while the word ‘ebonist’ seems to have retain this meaning. I found occurrences of ‘cabinet maker’ but could never determine whether this word refers to the making of cabinet only, or to other furniture also.

  4. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says

    A copy of La Planète des singes languishes irrelevantly on one of my many shelves, where it accumulates dust-mite faeces to make me sneeze. I had forgotten the name of the author, of course.

  5. Of course, and gesundheit!

  6. @Alex

    I have always understood “cabinet maker” to refer to a maker of wooden furniture in general, whereas a carpenter would most likely make wooden flooring or panelling.

  7. On another point, looking for translation it appears that ‘ébéniste’ does not have an exact translation in English […] the word ‘ebonist’ seems to have retain this meaning.

    I had never heard of it, but yes, it exists. The OED entry (from 1891):

    Etymology: < ebon– (in ebony n.) + –ist suffix. Compare French ébéniste.

    A worker or dealer in ebony or other ornamental woods.

    1706 Phillips’s New World of Words (ed. 6) Ebonist, one that works or deals in Ebony.
    1721–1800 in N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict.
    1871 Athenæum 24 June 783 A great hubbub of glaziers, carpenters, ebonists, iron and tile workers.

    Two dictionary entries and a single actual citation, though Google Books turns up lots more.

  8. marie-lucie says

    Until I read this post I had never heard of the novelist Boulle and did not know that The Bridge on the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes were not of English or American origin. But I have known the name of Boulle the furniture maker forever. I am puzzled by Alex’s remark: un bureau Boulle sounds perfectly OK to me.

    In France un menuisier is a craftsman who can make furniture and other wooden household pieces such as built-in cabinets, a “joiner” (a British word?) rather than a woodcarver (although there might be some carved decorations on the pieces in question). In the old days people did not buy ready-made furniture but ordered it to their specifications. Un ébéniste to me is a maker or repairer of high class, fancy furniture such as is rarely made today except for copying or imitating period pieces. Un charpentier, as the name indicates, makes la charpente, the wooden framework supporting a roof. I suppose that the beams supporting a floor would also be part of the work of the charpentier, and probably also the vertical wooden framework of inside walls (the outside walls being made of stone or brick in old traditional houses).

  9. J. W. Brewer says

    Unfortunately, “ivoiriste” does not appear to be an actual French word, but the combination “ebeniste et ivoirier” appears at least once (in a 1956 publication about “planteurs de cacao au Cameroun”). “Ivorist” exists in the scrabble-dictionary register of English, but a quick glance at google books found very few legitimate in-the-wild hits, so few that they could be independent nonce coinages. Check out the bizarre period-journalese style of this description of NYC nightlife, which is apparently from a 1942 issue of Esquire: “Palmy evenings at Monte Proser’s Copacabana (10 East 60th) are melodied by charm ivorist Ted Straeter and his orchestra, with Frank Marti as samba purveyor.”

  10. I am puzzled by Alex’s remark: un bureau Boulle sounds perfectly OK to me.

    I think it sounds OK to him too, he’s just saying Boulle isn’t actually an adjective there.

  11. melodied by charm ivorist Ted Straeter

    i.e. one who plays the ivories (piano), as I take it – nothing to do with fine carpentry.

  12. I’ve definitely heard ivorist used for a piano player before. It’s certainly not common, but it seems unremarkable to me. (I spent perhaps a decade of my life rubbing elbows with semiprofessional musicians.)

    I’m also rather surprised that Pierre Boulle is not better known. I’m not really a fan of his writing (although Lean’s film of The Bridge on the River Kwai is perhaps my favorite movie). However, I’ve read Planet of the Apes, and I would consider it a rather canonical work of science fiction. Moreover, the fact that Boulle (who spoke little or no English) won an academy award for the screenplay of The Bridge on the River Kwai seems to be well known among Oscar buffs. (The actual screenwriters were Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were blacklisted at the time; they were retroactively added to the Oscar award posthumously in 1984.)

  13. He is also well-known for his Academy Award acceptance speech, the whole of which I can recite from memory: “Merci.” Of course, it could have been a rejection speech for all anyone knows.

    Dr. Johnson boasted that he could recite an entire chapter from memory of The Natural History of Iceland by Niels Horrebow in English translation: “Chapter LXXII: Concerning Snakes. There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.” However, WP says:

    The original Danish version of the chapter on snakes was actually a full paragraph, rather than just one sentence. It was a direct response to a paragraph in Johann Anderson’s book, which claimed that snakes could not survive the cold of Iceland. Horrebow’s full chapter was translated into English in an 1870 issue of Notes and Queries:

    Serpents there are none in Iceland, as our author [Anderson] truly observes. But when he gives as a reason for this the intense cold of that country, he has been led into an error by false information. We have already spoken of the cold in Iceland, and it may be seen from the accompanying meteorological observations that the cold in the South of Iceland is not more severe than with us in Denmark, so that serpents could as easily live there as here. But since these creatures have not come to Iceland it is well, for no one is likely to trouble himself to transplant them thither.

    Though the contributor to Notes and Queries remarked that “Horrebow’s chapter is … not so ridiculous as generally supposed”, the earlier English translation of the chapter is still much better-known.

  14. though “charm ivorist” also suggests one who puts together charms out of ivory, a sort of fancy wordplay that seems to suit the style.

  15. marie-lucie says

    It might if out of context, but the actual context is unambiguously that of music.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    An ebonist would thus be a piano player who uses the black keys, I suppose.

  17. Nothing suggests that the ivorist uses only the white keys. All pianists use both colours of keys.

  18. m-l: Clearly it’s about piano playing, but the writer seems to be giving the expression a further little twist along the lines I suggested. Otherwise I don’t see how “charm” fits at all,

  19. I’m sure I have read that the difference between a carpenter and a cabinetmaker is in the limit of accuracy of their measurements. Not to say that they cannot all measure accurately, but that a cabinetmaker’s work must be accurate to 1/32 of an inch, while a carpenter’s is only to 1/8. Finer saws, rasps, tighter fits, &c. I read it in a Smithsonian magazine a long time ago, about a chap (I think a black chap, and that some weight was put on the fact) who built fine display cabinets for Smithsonian exhibitions. I am nowhere where I could verify that now. Perhaps someone else can. (The source, and the idea.)

  20. Nothing suggests that the ivorist uses only the white keys. All pianists use both colours of keys.

    J.W. was making a little joke; he probably was reminded, as was I, of this song.

  21. LH, you know I am often slow to get humour! Thank you for the link to the song. I had seen the title before but never heard the song, let alone seen the video.

  22. Alan: charm ivorist

    Do the English speakers here think of jewelry rather than piano music? I wonder if this strange phrase is a calque of the French phrase un chanteur de charme ‘a crooner’, who ‘charms’ the audience with his songs,

  23. J. W. Brewer says

    I was also thinking to myself of the (unsurprising of course, because you can’t expect idioms to be 100% Scientifically Accurate) fact that the semi-journalese phrase “tickling the ivories” is not limited to a piano player who plays only in C major. Although I think it was Stravinsky who said that there was still a lot of good stuff that could be written in that key?

  24. J. W. Brewer says

    Too elliptical — I was thinking to myself that it was modestly humorous that the stock phrase was not the fuller and more literal “tickling the ivories and ebonies.”

  25. I wish I remembered who said that Philip Glass “acts like he’d invented the C Major scale.”

  26. charm ivorist

    m-l, the sort of English speakers who used to hang around night clubs for fun or profit would certainly connect it with the phrase “tickling the ivories,” as J.W. Brewer says. Some might even think “ivorist” could legitimately mean a piano player, even if the dictionary only says “worker in ivory.” With the latter definition in mind, this particular writer might have asked himself “well, what does he work from the ivory?” and came up with “charm” or “charms.”

    But then maybe he meant something entirely different, I don’t know. I somehow doubt that it comes from un chanteur de charme. Though of course both English “charm” and French “charme” go back to Latin carmen, song.

  27. Y: I don’t know, but fellow minimalist Terry Riley’s best known piece is actually called In C

  28. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    brass isn’t really very much like tortoiseshell
    It’s precisely on the contrast between the two that the technique was based. They even used to make pairs of matching “negative” pieces – where a brass-inlaid-tortoiseshell pattern on one was repeated in tortoiseshell-inlaid-brass on the other. I recall seeing doors in the Hermitage with opposite-side panels made this way.

  29. marie-lucie says

    Alan: both English “charm” and French “charme” go back to Latin carmen, song.

    That may be, but I don’t think anyone remembers that. There would be little point in saying un chanteur de charme if it meant just “a singer of songs”.

  30. It’s precisely on the contrast between the two that the technique was based. They even used to make pairs of matching “negative” pieces – where a brass-inlaid-tortoiseshell pattern on one was repeated in tortoiseshell-inlaid-brass on the other.

    Thanks very much, that explains it! I wish they’d worded the definition to make that clear.

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