I’m still reading David A. Bell’s The First Total War, and in explaining his theory of how, paradoxically, the new concept that war was an aberration that could and should be eliminated led to the modern type of “total war” ushered in by the Napoleonic Wars, Bell traces the popularity of the idea back to François Fénelon, who had been nothing but a name to me, dimly recalled from high-school French classes with the severe Mme Ruegg. In 1699, Fénelon published a novel, Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus), that “more than anything else… saved him from the thickets of scholars’ footnotes and made him a sizable figure in European history and literature”; a sequel to the Odyssey, it “caused an immediate sensation, going through fifteen French editions in 1699 alone and at least sixty more over the course of the eighteenth century. Translated into every major language, it had particular success in English, where it appeared in at least fifty separate editions before 1800. Today, it is exasperatingly difficult to see why….” (Google Books has an 1857 American edition here, if you want to investigate for yourself.) And “in each of its eighteen long sections, Fenelon insistently put forth the claims of conscience, denounced war, and urged Christian pacifism on Christian rulers.”

Now, throughout the novel “Telemachus has by his side the drearily wise counselor Mentor, who ensures that his pupil’s slightest surrender to temptation meets with quick and loquacious correction,” and on p. 64, Bell writes “The word ‘mentor,’ which we owe to Fenelon, remains a telling sign of its appeal.” I regarded this claim skeptically, having always assumed the word was taken from Homer, but lo and behold, when I went to the OED I discovered that the entry for mentor, revised just this last June, says:

[< French mentor (1735 in sense 2 in a book title, 1749 in sense ‘guide, adviser’) < Mentor, the name of a character in F. de S. de la Mothe-Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699), after ancient Greek Μέντωρ, the name of a character in the Odyssey, in whose likeness Athena appears to Telemachus and acts as his guide and adviser. Compare German Mentor (1725 in sense ‘court tutor, adviser’ in a book title), Italian mentore (a1789), Spanish mentor (1785 in a book title).
  N.E.D. (1906) notes that the emphasis Fénelon places on the role of Mentor as a counsellor is key to the currency of this word in English and French. Fénelon’s work was one of the most popular political novels of its time, and had been translated into English by 1699-1700, German by 1700, and Italian by 1719: numerous English adaptations in prose, verse, and drama appeared in the course of the 18th cent., including a translation by Smollett.
  The ancient Greek name is recorded as a historical personal name in the 4th cent. It may be cognate with MIND n.

(The original OED etymology just said it was “a. F. mentor, appellative use of the proper name Mentor, Gr. Μέντωρ.”) You never know what you’re going to learn from a history book.


  1. I can’t help but think that there must be a good mentor/mentir pun out there somewhere. Like “Tradittore, traduttore”.

  2. The reviews (which I admit I’ve been getting from Amazon) are mixed for this book; people say it’s really about Bush and Iraq (‘No one likes armed missionaries; and the first advice given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies.’ -“Mad Max” Robespierre, January 2, 1792) and that that somehow distorts the argument. I’m more interested in Napoleon than in Bush and Iraq, so I’d like to know your opinion of that. As for F. de S. de la Mothe-Fénelon, do you realise how many trees were cut down just to indulge his parents’ misplaced sense of what constitutes a set of initials?

  3. …a good mentor/mentir pun…
    Sure, Sili. Perhaps do it in French, with shifts in each vowel: Mentor, menteur. While the Italian keeps the same vowels, it loses symmetry with an extra syllable: Mentore, mentitore.
    Athene was indeed a menteuse, pretending to be Mentor. Did Telemachus grumble “Minerve m’énerve!”, when she prodded him to action?

  4. Forgot this: Sili, it’s traditore. No -tt-.

  5. Siganus Sutor says

    Noetica, it must be late on your side of the Antipodes. “Dodo”, one should be saying.
    Minerve was a Roman goddess, Athéna’s Roman counterpart, no? T’es miss ou quoi ?
    Siganus Sutor, mentoring Noetica

  6. Siganus Sutor says

    He’s neither Greek nor Roman in origin, but we also have Le Roman de Renart where a character gave his name to the animal known in English as a fox. In French a fox was un goupil but due to the popularity of Renart, the mischievous goupil that could talk (in the thirteenth century stories), the animal became known as un renard (cognate with the Germanic name Reinhart/Reinhardt). From Don Quixote we also have une dulcinée (lower case), loved one, fiancée, mistress. I cannot think of another case where the name of a character becomes a common noun but there must be some more.

  7. I’m more interested in Napoleon than in Bush and Iraq, so I’d like to know your opinion of that.
    It’s nonsense. In the last few pages of the book he says “The vision of war as redemptive continues to flourish as well” and has a few remarks about Bush and Iraq, but that can be ignored or skipped if you prefer; the rest of the book is a discussion of French intellectual and military history from the eighteenth century through around 1807, with a brief run-through of the rest of the Napoleonic period and an epilogue of a few pages. So far, it’s been good reading, with enlightening things to say about periods I thought I knew pretty well, like 1789-90.

  8. That clears up a mystery. I’ve always wondered how a character with a walk-on role in Homer became a commonly used noun. It’s usually easier to figure out where a word comes from than why it becomes current.
    Now .. what about stentorian?

  9. I’ve tried to read Fenelon more than once, with no lasting success; the book is, by my standards at least, stupendously dull.

  10. Siganus Sutor says

    But in any case you hate reading, don’t you? So you might as well hate reading for a good reason — and do it nonetheless.

  11. I cannot think of another case where the name of a character becomes a common noun but there must be some more.
    Aren’t there verbs that come from a manufacturer’s name? Like ‘to hoover’, in England, which replaced ‘to clean with a vacuum cleaner’ (except in my family which ‘electroluxed’, to my embarrassment) for some decades. There lots of others in English, like ‘boycott’ (noun and verb).
    Here’s what it says about the French word reynard in Wiki:

    The traditional French word for “fox” was goupil from Latin vulpecula. However, mentioning the fox was considered bad luck among farmers. Because of the popularity of the Reynard stories, renard was often used as an euphemism to the point that today renard is the standard French word for “fox” and goupil is now dialectal or archaic.

    I cannot see that word ‘dialectal’ without thinking they’re talking about Hegel.*
    *Yes, I do see it’s different.

  12. name of a character becomes a common noun
    A few more among Liste d’anthroponymes devenus noms communs.

  13. Alexandre Graham Bell (1847-1922), le bel (B) est une unité acoustique (et électrique) nommée en l’honneur de l’inventeur
    Is this a joke?

  14. John Emerson says

    It sounds like something Satie would say.
    I’ve tried to get the blogger / blagueur pun going, but no one has cooperated. I am proud to be both.

  15. John Emerson says

    It sounds like something Satie would say.
    I’ve tried to get the blogger / blagueur pun going, but no one has cooperated. I am proud to be both.

  16. Oh, I see, it’s a tenth of a decibel.

  17. I’ve tried to get the blogger / blagueur pun going, but no one has cooperated.
    Some things are worth fighting for, Emerson. You mustn’t give up.

  18. That must be a centibel, surely.
    And as was shown with my “dutsen” the other day, I can’t spell (used to be pretty good at in Danish, but that’s long past since I only type in English these days). Got interested in languages much too late, and am forever too lazy to become more than sesquilingual.
    I appreciate the lessons nonetheless.

  19. John Emerson says

    Sili, are there people can switch from correct Swedish to correct Danish to correct Norwegian? Or would someone who knew all three languages just mess everything up?

  20. John Emerson says

    Sili, are there people can switch from correct Swedish to correct Danish to correct Norwegian? Or would someone who knew all three languages just mess everything up?

  21. “Liste d’anthroponymes devenus noms communs”.
    They missed out one of my favourites: celadon. According to my Concise OED, it means “willow green; grey-green glaze used on some pottery; Chinese pottery thus glazed.” From the name of a character in an earlier French romance, D’Urfé’s ”Astrée” (recently made into a film by Eric Rohmer).

  22. Well, I’ll be damned. I did not know that.

  23. I’m surprised they don’t list Casanova.

  24. IIRC “une rossignol” is a skeleton key, after the 17th-century codebreaker Bonaventure Rossignol. Which is rather a nice one.
    Another one is “pander” – from Pandarus in “Troilus and Cressida”.
    Cyrano describes himself as “Elegant comme Celadon, agile comme Scaramouche” in the “Ballade d’un duel”.

  25. According to the French Wikipedia, the character Céladon wore green ribbons. The vogue for Astrée in the early 17th century coincided with the fashion for imported china from the workshops of Longquan, so the comparison was made between Céladon’s clothes and the colour of the pottery. Astrée is apparently 5,399 pages long. Marcel Proust, you are a piker!
    Back to Fénelon, I remember these lines from Robert Lowell’s “imitation” of Baudelaire’s “Spleen” (“Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux”):
    I’m like the king of a rain country, rich
    but sterile, young but with an old wolf’s itch,
    one who escapes Fénelon’s apologues,
    and kills the day in boredom with his dogs.
    There’s no reference to Fénelon in the original (“Qui, de ses précepteurs méprisant les courbettes/S’ennuie avec ses chiens comme avec d’autres bêtes”) but a character from Télemaque, Eucharis, is namechecked by Rimbaud in his Illuminations (“Puis, dans la futaie violette, bourgeonnante, Eucharis me dit que c’était le printemps”). There is also an entire Wikipedia article devoted to Eucharis.

  26. Trilby– girl, foot and hat.

  27. And, of course there’s the now popular hat known as an “Indiana Jones.”
    And ‘pantaloon’ comes to mind, as mentioned by Jacques in –As You Like It.–
    Supposedly the remote handling apparatuses used in laboratories and nuclear plants are-or were- called ‘waldoes’ after a character in one of Heinlein’s stories. The character used them because he had myasthenia gravis, IIRC.

  28. If you’re going to have trilby, I want bowler and straw. And, of course, ‘hat’ itself — isn’t it named after someone? Crown is.

  29. Bah! Humbug! It’s Christmas, yet we’ve forgotten perhaps the most famous example of “d’anthroponymes devenus noms communs”.

  30. ‘Scrooge’ would be an example of periphrasis, but perhaps that’s a Mickey Mouse distinction.
    BTW, the bulky severe cold weather boots issued to US Army troops are known as Mickey Mouse boots.

  31. And a deerstalker hat is better known as a ‘Sherlock Holmes.’

  32. What about people who are named after people? A bobby and a peeler are both supposed to be names for policemen that come from Sir Robert Peel, not that anyone ever used them in my lifetime. There’s also ‘the old bill’, a name that’s actually used, but I’ve no idea who Bill was.

  33. And what about people who are named after things: ‘ich bin ein Berliner’, I am a doughnut? No, we don’t want to get David started again.

  34. Edsel Ford. Named after his father’s car, something like that.

  35. Graf von Zeppelin, named after a rock group. Telly Savalas or ‘Kojak’, called after the Greek Broadcasting Corp. America, named after Amerigo Vespucci — shouldn’t it have been Vespuccia? Either that or Colombia ought to be called ‘Christophia’ and Bolivia ‘Simonia’, which sounds like a carwax — anyway, the list is endless; ‘list’, named for Franz List, ‘the’ named for Theodore Dreiser…

  36. Yet another eponymous hat is the Stormy Kromer winter cap with earflaps that tie up on the bill. Stormy Kromer was a railroad engineer and part-time professional baseball player. The first SK hat was apparently constructed by his wife. Today, the Stormy Kromer hat is AKA an ‘Elmer Fudd,’ because Elmer is shown wearing one while stalking that wascally wabbit.
    Elmer’s speech problem, a form of rhotacism, is known to non-PC people as the Elmer Fudd impediment.

  37. And lest we forget, Sadie Hawkins.

  38. There’s a fictional occurence of this phenomenon in Pynchon’s –The Crying of Lot 49.– Dr. Hilarius, the extremely unorthodox psychotherapist who treats people by giving them LSD and making faces at them, has one especially potent face called the Fu Manchu.
    This odyssey can’t be complete without reference to the Lockheed Skunk Works, named after a mysterious factory in –Lil’ Abner–.

  39. John Emerson,
    Short answer, I don’t know. I can’t switch from English to Danish without messing up.
    That said, the late queenmother was Swedish and taught her children the language – my impression is that her majesty is still fluent.

  40. Even though dead? Is this a Scandinavian thing?

  41. King Crown – you’ve clearly never been involved with the Gardai, who are still called in Ireland “the Peelers”.
    You can’t mention Trilby without taking your hat off to her Svengali.

  42. Is that right? I’d no idea.
    Why, who was her Svengali?

  43. We’re very stubborn, yes. We’ll leave when it suits us – to Hell with Death (by being caught up in unclear anaphora).

  44. “America, named after Amerigo Vespucci”
    Or, more probably, Richard Ameryk (or Amerike).

  45. I don’t find it probable at all. The Cosmographiae Introductio said at the time that the name was derived from the Latinized version of Vespucci’s name; the Ameryk theory was proposed centuries later by an English gentleman of leisure of the sort who enjoys “proving” that Shakespeare’s works were written by some lord or other.

  46. Ha! We laugh at your ‘more probably’. ‘More probably’, like I’m just going to take your word for having calculated the probabilities. We are scientists, some of us, we like evidence. You’ll have a hard time convincing me that A.m.e.r.y.k is an Italian name. I suppose you think London was named after Jack London and that Washington…well, never mind about that.

  47. who was her Svengali?
    Sven Gali, the Swedish/Mingrelian music impresario behind the rise of his fellow Mingrelian Katie Melua

  48. Siganus Sutor says

    JCass: It’s Christmas, yet we’ve forgotten perhaps the most famous example of “d’anthroponymes devenus noms communs”.
    Mind you, un jésus (lower case) is a type of saucisson in the region of Lyon. If MMcM wasn’t a vegetarian he would have underlined that already.
    Now, what about the jack-fruit* we had for diner last Saturday? (And on a number of subsequent meals — bloody thing.)
    * Given that Jack is John as Bulbul was saying the other day, and given that John is Jean, “jackfruit” should “fruit de Jean”, but it’s called jacques instead. MMcM, how do you explain such an oddity, er?

  49. I just recieved a package from Sweden addressed to “Jaffrey Delcool.” Is this the Swedish pronunciation? Or would that be ‘Yaffrey?’
    I sometimes get things addressed to Col. Jeffrey Del. Which would be fine, if the rank included the appropriate pension.

  50. jack, jacques
    Malayalam ചക്ക (or one of its cognates). More fun in Hobson-Jobson.

  51. “America, named after Amerigo Vespucci”
    Nah, everybody knows it comes from a misunderstanding between Spanish conquistadors and the Viking inhabitants who had been in “Vinland” for centuries. The Spanish came across a young Norse woman and asked the name of the place. She was confused and answered, “I’m Erica”. (Some scholars believe it was a man the Spaniards met and his reply was “[Ek] em Eirikr”. But this is hardly likely).
    Another possibility: the country was named after the Elephant Man’s sister, Ann Merrick.

  52. Artifex Amando says

    J. Del Col:
    I think what may have happened with the spelling “Jaffrey” is that many Swedish words begin with ja-, but not too many with je-, whereas there are quite a few words beginning with ge- (pronounced je-). This pronounciation can also be spelled gj- and hj-, btw, depending on the word. Also the letters E and A are quite close on Swedish keyboards, which makes it even easier to press the other when one is in haste.

  53. The word “milquetoast” comes from the name of a cartoon character.

  54. The rossignol < Rossignol etymology is false; the word predates the man by a century.

  55. From Elena Veltman’s 1853 novella “Viktor”:

    Пино развертывалъ томъ вѣчно лежащаго подъ рукою неизбѣжнаго Телемака, переведеннаго на всѣ языки, безъ котораго, какъ извѣстно, ни одинъ французскій гувернеръ никогда не обходился. Напыщенный слогъ Фенелoна согласовался съ тономъ Пино …

    Pinot [Victor’s new tutor] deployed (or ‘displayed’?) the volume, always lying ready to hand, of the inescapable Télémaque, translated into all languages, without which, as is well known, not a single French tutor was ever able to manage. Fénelon’s pompous style accorded with Pinot’s tone…

Speak Your Mind