I’m almost halfway through Malaparte’s The Skin (which is the last of the books in my Naples reading project); I was quite enjoying it at first, despite its going overboard with the bitter irony (I figured that having been a journalist on the Eastern Front he was entitled to a good dose of bitter irony), but then I hit a chapter of such virulent homophobia I was set back on my heels. It’s especially depressing after the loving portrait of the gay bar in The Gallery, though of course John Horne Burns had the advantage of being gay. Still, I’m plugging along, and being rewarded with the occasional word hitherto unknown to me, like zazou (the French equivalent of zoot suiters, teddy boys, and stilyagi, the latter discussed at LH here); the most linguistically interesting of them so far is roturier. Malaparte refers to “the noble American roturiers who had invaded the Rive Gauche in 1920,” and this turns out to be an (ironic) oxymoron, because a roturier is “a person not of noble birth.” But the interesting part is the etymology; I quote the OED (entry updated March 2011):

Etymology: < Middle French roturier (French roturier) (adjective) not noble (a1272 in Old French), concerning an estate held by a commoner (1312 as rupturier), (noun) peasant (1306), commoner (1447) < roture roture n. + –ier -ier suffix. Compare post-classical Latin rupturarius (1072).

And the entry for roture (updated at the same time) says:

Etymology: < Middle French, French roture status of an estate held by a commoner (a1454 as rousture; earlier in sense ‘newly cleared land’ (1406 as roupture)), estate held by a commoner (16th cent.), status of a commoner, estate for which rent is paid (both 1549), commoners collectively (1611 in Cotgrave), specific use of Middle French roture breach, act of breaking (c1180) < classical Latin ruptūra (compare especially its post-classical Latin senses ‘reclamation of waste land, rent paid for such land’: see rupture n.).

That’s one I wouldn’t have guessed.


  1. From the Wikipedia entry, “roturier” had a meaning in France under the Ancien Régime, “en un mot, tous ceux qui n’étaient ni nobles ni ecclésiastiques”. But it says “Le mot roturier n’est guère plus usité de nos jours, même dans les pays où une noblesse existe encore, hormis au Royaume-Uni (commoner).”

    I can’t quite see what it would mean in 1920s Paris, particularly when referring to Americans. Does it mean something like “remittance man”? Because in its original meaning it would be someone who lived on the rents he collected (like the nobility) rather than performing manual labor. I’m thinking of people like Hemingway and Henry Miller.

  2. Good question, perhaps unanswerable.

  3. Might it mean something like Le bourgeois gentilhomme?

  4. So following links today I learned about “jazz on bones”.

  5. danielsyrovy says

    I checked the original which says (ed. Adelphi 2010, p. 92):
    “Molti appartenevano alla strana progenie, abbandonata sui marciapiedi di Parigi dalla nobile roture americana che aveva invaso la Rive Gauche nel 1920,” so roturiers is only in the translation. I think the collective noun is much more widely used.

  6. I checked the original

    Thanks for that! I was hoping to use Google Books to do that, but they haven’t digitized the Italian, apparently.

  7. >So following links today I learned about “jazz on bones”

    I found the same link when I was reading about this Soviet subculture after watching a music clip from the movie Stiliagi where the guy is talking about the “Atomic”, “Canadian” and “Triple Hamburg” style of Boogie Woogie. At first I thought I was missing something, but it turns out those were all made up by the Russians.

    “Среди танцев в конце 40-х был актуален буги-вуги. Причём, советские стиляги не ограничивались довольно скудными познаниями в этой области и изобретали собственные вариации на тему модного танца. Так, существовали «атомный», «канадский» или «тройной Гамбургский» стили. Первые два мало чем отличались друг от друга и были некоей вариацией на тему танцев джиттер баг, линди хоп и буги-вуги. «Тройной Гамбургский» был медленным танцем, похожим на слоу-фокс.”

  8. ”noble American roturiers”

    The definitions above are correct (given the periods of their usage) but neglect to say that the word has a derogatory connotation in most contexts. An aristocratic man, even a royal prince, may be forgiven for marrying a ”roturière” (especially a very wealthy one), but for a princess or even a girl of lower rank to marry a roturier would still shock traditionally-minded noble families.

    I think that in the novel the word might refer to the fact that people like Hemingway and similar expatriates were not the same type of Americans as the very wealthy ones of an earlier generation, being both engaged in noble pursuits (artists, writers etc) and without much money.

    I had no idea of he origin of the word (thanks LH), but even if some of the original roturiers lived on collected rents (like nobles on their lands), this activity had nothing to do with the modern meaning. So-called remittance men were not collecting rents from their own properties but receiving money from their families in distant lands.

  9. I think that in the novel the word might refer to the fact that people like Hemingway and similar expatriates were not the same type of Americans as the very wealthy ones of an earlier generation, being both engaged in noble pursuits (artists, writers etc) and without much money.

    I think that must be right.

  10. So it means literally sodbuster, or clodhopper, peasant in the disparaging sense, crude, uncivilized.

    I’m disappointed you have said nothing about ‘The Gallery’. The novel was passed on to me by an exgirlfriend, saying that she didn’t read war novels, but that it wasn’t really about war. After I read it, we discussed it and agreed that it is about how one American learned how others see them. Actually it is a large subset of Americans who besmirch their country by the way they act, obscuring the fact that there are other Americans who are not at all like them. ‘Naples 1944’ also portrays an unflattering but believable aspect, that of American corruption meeting and embracing Italian corruption.

    Your excursion is not at all a pleasant one.

  11. iakon: “So it means literally sodbuster, or clodhopper, peasant in the disparaging sense, crude, uncivilized.”

    Not since the high Middle Ages! The semantic connotation rose up later, towards a “landed gentleman”, just not descended from nobility, and therefore someone that nobles would consider below them, even if they are very rich. Later anyone not “of noble birth” was a roturier. As an example; Louis XIV distrusted nobles, who had rebelled against his father when he was a small child, so he kept them as sycophants at his court while he hired very competent roturiers to actually run the country.

  12. I’m disappointed you have said nothing about ‘The Gallery’.

    Oh, didn’t I? Sorry; I enjoyed it a lot, and in fact a new copy is winging its way to someone as a gift at this very moment. It’s weak in places, but overall tremendously powerful and convincing — it’s probably the best novel I’ve read about the American side of WWII, certainly the best that didn’t involve combat. (I say “novel,” but of course it’s not really, more a collection of short stories tied together with short chapters of authorial reminiscence.) I would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat that it is on the whole a pretty grim read, though there is at least one fairly uplifting chapter.

  13. It was a pretty grim event.

  14. m-l: Sorry, I should expand a bit: since Malaparte uses the French word referring to Americans in Paris in the Twenties, it occurred to me that he may have read something in French from the French point of view at the time which had resurrected an old word. Of course someone can say I’m out on a dreamy limb and cut it off, but it looks like this series of reads has a common theme.

    Hat, I’m glad you point out the literary virtues of ‘The Gallery’, which I must have missed a couple of decades ago, or it’s faded away. Since I’m engaged upon reactivating unused parts of my brain I must search it out.

    JC: Grim indeed, from more than one point of view. Since this series begins and ends with the Italian point of view, I need to search them out too.

  15. Since “remittance men” have come up, I have a question. I have looked this word up in a number of dictionaries, and typically the definition indicates somebody living on remittances from home. The OED (being the OED) is the only one I’ve found that actually includes what I would consider the most important part of the definition. A British mystery show I watched in the 1990s (a bit of research reveals that is was Gallowglass) made it explicit that a remittance man was paid to stay away from home (although brief, occasional visits were allowed in that case). This was also explicit in an episode of Jean Shepherd’s America about a rich young man who had stolen from his family’s company and now was forced to live in Guam; there was nothing keeping him from leaving, except the knowledge that his family would not have him back and would stop supporting him if he left the island.

    In fact, I have never encountered an example of a “remittance man” who was not being paid to stay away. (My brother, unfortunately, has lived as remittance man of this type.) Does anybody else know of examples where remittance men, so called, were free to return to the families they were supporting them?

  16. Fascinating, I was not aware of that connotation!

  17. Sure. Consider Milord Sir Smiht, wizard anglais and master of the odyllic forces in Bella:

    Dimly, very dimly, Eszterhazy remembered having read, long ago (and it had not been fresh news, even then) of the singular disappearance of Mr. Pigafetti-Jones, Astronomer-Royal for Wales. But what he was hearing now [from Smith] provided more details than he had ever even guessed at. It also provided, if not a complete explanation for, at least an assumption as to why “Milord Sir Smiht” was and long had been wandering the continent of Europe (and perhaps farther) a remittance man, as the British called it. That is, in return for his keeping far away and thus bringing at least no fresh local scandals to his family’s embarrassment, the family would continue to remit him a certain sum of money at fixed intervals.

    He meets Doctor⁷ Eszterhazy over a matter of snuff-tobacco, but he gets invited back home in the end, all trouble cleared up.

  18. iakon: ” it occurred to me that he may have read something in French from the French point of view at the time which had resurrected an old word. ”

    Not being familiar with the work except in the vaguest, most general way, I can’t comment on the origin of Malaparte’s attitude or his own understanding of the word, but “roturier” did not need to be “resurrected” since it had never stopped existing (although being much less common than in past centuries because of the societal changes),

    “remittance man” : I am aware of this connotation. Older Canadian literature in both languages often includes such characters, usually Englishmen supported (rather skimpily) by their families so they would no longer darken the family home and reputation by unspecified but unsavoury behaviour. No doubt some of them were sent even farther from home, like Australia or the South Seas (see some of R.L. Stevenson’s works).

  19. Indeed, Chapter 12 of The Wrecker by R.L.S. and Charles Osbourne is actually called “The Remittance-Man”, and Mark Twain mentions the institution in Following the Equator:

    To go back to that young Canadian. He was a “remittance man,” the first one I had ever seen or heard of. Passengers explained the term to me. They said that dissipated ne’er-do-wells belonging to important families in England and Canada were not cast off by their people while there was any hope of reforming them, but when that last hope perished at last, the ne’er-do-well was sent abroad to get him out of the way. He was shipped off with just enough money in his pocket—no, in the purser’s pocket—for the needs of the voyage—and when he reached his destined port he would find a remittance awaiting him there. Not a large one, but just enough to keep him a month. A similar remittance would come monthly thereafter. It was the remittance-man’s custom to pay his month’s board and lodging straightway—a duty which his landlord did not allow him to forget—then spree away the rest of his money in a single night, then brood and mope and grieve in idleness till the next remittance came. It is a pathetic life.

    We had other remittance-men on board, it was said. At least they said they were R. M.’s. There were two. But they did not resemble the Canadian; they lacked his tidiness, and his brains, and his gentlemanly ways, and his resolute spirit, and his humanities and generosities. One of them was a lad of nineteen or twenty, and he was a good deal of a ruin, as to clothes, and morals, and general aspect. He said he was a scion of a ducal house in England, and had been shipped to Canada for the house’s relief, that he had fallen into trouble there, and was now being shipped to Australia. He said he had no title. Beyond this remark he was economical of the truth. The first thing he did in Australia was to get into the lockup, and the next thing he did was to proclaim himself an earl in the police court in the morning and fail to prove it.

    Both books are available at Project Gutenberg.

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