In The Idiot II.11, Keller tells Prince Myshkin he has stayed around Pavlovsk in part “из особенного уважения к французскому архиепископу Бурдалу” [out of special respect for the French archbishop Bourdaloue], and since there was no annotation in either my Russian edition or the Carlisles’ translation, I consulted Dr. Google, and what I found astonished and amused me. Not the archbishop himself; Louis Bourdaloue was a perfectly respectable Jesuit preacher whose sermons were very popular. No, it’s the use the French language made of his name. My ancient Concise Oxford (1977, reprinted with corrections from the 1934 edition) defines bourdalou [sic] as ‘hatband’; as you can imagine, this pleased me. More recent dictionaries, even the huge (2,000+ pages) Larousse, don’t include it at all. But Doc Google turned up a much more entertaining eponym, bourdaloue ‘small chamber pot.’ You can see various lovely illustrations at this webpage, along with the popular explanation of the name:

According to legend, the name of this porta potty comes from Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), one of Louis XIVs Jesuit priests. His oratorical skills were reputedly so accomplished that people felt they could not miss a single word of his sermons. It is said that women sat through his masses with a bourdaloue placed under their dresses, whose skirts were held out by panniers. Since the priest’s sermons were somewhat longwinded, the chances that ladies would need to relieve themselves were almost certain. As a rule, churches and theatres had no toilets, and there were no breaks given during sermons. Ergo these portable urinals, which were ergonomically designed to accommodate the female body.

I presume both senses are long forgotten by current French speakers, other than specialists.


  1. I see that Bourdaloue’s Eight Sermons for Holy Week and Easter, translated from the French and published in 1884, is available from Amazon as an “unchanged, high-quality reprint of the original edition”. Only $1.47 on Kindle!

  2. speedwell says

    I was so amused by this I was reading it to my husband, who was not entirely paying attention. “Did you say portaloo?” he asked. “Um… Yes and no,” I answered.

  3. Ha!

  4. marie-lucie says

    As a “current French speaker”, I knew the name Bourdaloue as belonging to someone famous, but nothing else. The TLFI gives three definitions for the word as a common noun:
    A. a thick hatband held together by a buckle (making it easy to hold feathers or other ornaments next to the crown);
    B. a kind of chamber pot;
    C. a hot dish of cooked fruits.

    The variety among these definitions suggests that there could have been many misunderstandings, or puns! I did not know any of these meanings, let alone the lady’s accessory, the appearance and use of which are described at greater length in the link.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I saw the post title, thought “port-a-loo”, and couldn’t wait to make the pun. Oh, well.

    But surely one has to be a cross-linguistic pun on the other. Which came first?

  6. Just in case anyone wonders, Bourdaloue in the original quote refers to some kind of alcoholic drink. Bordeaux seems to be too expensive for the company where the respects for “bourdaloue” were paid. Maybe it was just a play on burda , a word for any low quality drinkable substance (including soup).

    Later in the text, the good preacher is mentioned in his own capacity, not as a euphemism.

    Addendum: now Msgr. Bourdaloue joins somewhat mysterious Matradura Cliquot. Dost again playing with Gogol?

  7. Maybe it was just a play on burda

    That was my guess at first, but then when I read about the popular sermons I figured maybe they were just discussing those.

  8. marie-lucie says

    burda , a word for any low quality drinkable substance (including soup).

    In what language?

  9. The only reference I’d ever heard was “tarte bourdaloue”, a somewhat quaint name for a pie made of half pears and almond paste filing (it’s amazingly good). Most “patisseries” these days call them “tarte aux poires amandine” and “bourdaloue” will get you a blank stare from younger staff.
    Turns out “poires bourdaloue” is a dish (probably the original) of cooked pears with kirsch, caramel and almond paste. I’m assuming you could prepare other fruits that way.
    As for the origin of the name for the dish, or the link to chamber pots … no clue.

  10. French Wikipedia says that the tarte Bourdaloue was invented in the 1850s by a pâtissier on rue Bourdaloue in Paris.

  11. @ m-l: burda is Russian.

  12. My Russian edition of The Idiot actually does have an endnote about Bourdaloue–the Russian translation of his works apparently appeared in 1821-1825 in four volumes–and notes that Keller was punning on both бурда and Bordeaux.

  13. Thanks! (Although how they know exactly which puns a fictional character intended is beyond me.)

  14. Is there a connection here with the family name Burda?

    From the Wikipedia article on “Burda (surname)”:

    The nationality of Burda is often difficult to determine because country boundaries change over time, leaving the original nationality a mystery. The original ethnicity of Burda may be difficult to determine especially because it was common for a last name to change as it enters a new country or language. Still, according to several individual researches last name Burda probably has a Germanic origin and was intensively extended to today’s Slavic lands and USA from the north-east part of the former Prussia. Some research suggests that the surname may come even from the Scandinavian countries such as Norway. It is assumed that the name Burda is probably old Slavic derivative form of Germanic surname. Today, surname is most commonly found in different Slavic countries such as northern Poland, the Czech Republic and western Ukraine, as a result of centuries-old migration of the European population.

    The meaning of Burda may come from a craft, such as the name “Gardener” which was given to people of that profession. Also it may come from a name of a plant or place of residence. Associated surnames are Burde, Burden, Burdin, Burdek (also Slavic form), etc., showing the rich history of the surname. According to some Slavic references Burda is a nickname for a large, loutish fellow, from the vocabulary word “burda”.
    Surname Burda also might be connected (related) with the surname Burd which has Anglo-Saxon origins. Surname Burd, with variant spellings such as Byrd or Byrde derives from the Old English pre 7th Century “bridde” (meaning a bird), originally given as a nickname to one thought to bear a fancied resemblance to a bird. The surname was first recorded towards the end of the 12th Century.

Speak Your Mind