Serial déboires.

I’m always interested in the ragged edges of the English wordhoard, where borrowed terms and foreign ones mingle uneasily. I just ran across an example in Perry Anderson’s LRB review (2 December 2021) of Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union, by Stella Ghervas:

[Ghervas] rarely loses sight of the imperialist plunder that accompanied continental peace and war alike, from Utrecht to Geneva and beyond. Unlike Schroeder too, she highlights the blindness of the pentarchs at Vienna to the realities of decaying Ottoman rule in Balkan lands excluded from the precincts of Christendom, and the indifference of the Great Powers of Europe to the fate of its subjects, which had so much consequence in the serial déboires of the Eastern Question: a pointed lesson in realism.

Now, déboire is by no stretch of the imagination an English word, and it’s not one that was familiar to me as someone who reads French decently. Wiktionary defines it as “(figuratively and literally) unpleasant aftertaste, bad taste” (and says it’s from dé- +‎ boire ‘to drink’), my ancient Concise Oxford French Dictionary (a reprint of the 1935 edition) says “Nasty after-taste; (fig.) vexation, disappointment,” my Collins Robert bilingual (2nd ed. 1987) has it as plural déboires ‘disappointments, heartbreaks; setbacks, reverses; trials, difficulties’ (note that there’s no mention of aftertaste), and the Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French by René James Hérail and ‎Edwin A. Lovatt has “‘Heaving’, vomiting (after a bout of heavy drinking” (presumably not what is intended here). The general sense is clear enough — the Balkan situation caused a lot of problems — but what precisely was intended by déboires is impossible to discern, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Anderson is simply showing off. English has a capacious vocabulary, people; use it!


  1. Am I the only one perplexed by the its in the quote, unsure of its intended antecedent?

  2. Trond Engen says

    Heh. I probably hesitated for the fracture of a moment, but read “its” as “the Ottoman Empire’s” without noticing it wasn’t there.

  3. I did the same as Trond.

  4. It’s like an optical illusion, only with grammar.

  5. I just took at look at the Wikipedia page for Francis Rory Peregrine “Perry” Anderson. I think ‘showing off’ is a distinct possibility.

    Although I confess I have an automatic visceral distaste for toffs who espouse Marxism. Not to mention people named Peregrine.

  6. Yes, he definitely likes to exhibit his erudition, and he gets too wild-eyed for me sometimes, but I generally find him well-informed and worth reading. I always forget he’s Benedict Anderson’s brother.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I was initially baffled by “pentarchs at Vienna,” even though I thought I knew a lot about Hapsburg titles, before figuring out he meant the Great Powers, who were perceived, as of the Congress of Vienna and its aftermath, to be five in number, of which only one had a Hapsburg sovereign. You can find some academic writers referring to what wikipedia calls the Quintuple Alliance as the “Pentarchy,” so this may be pretentious, but is not an entirely original pretension on Anderson’s part. And indeed earlier in the review than the portion quoted (as I saw when I eventually clicked through) he uses the phrase “pentarchy of Great Powers,” thus making the subsequent “pentarchs” reference less peculiar than when it was seen in isolation.

    I note separately that Anderson is already throwing in italicized French phrases in the very first line of the review, so if that’s not your bag, he may not be your man, although there’s a lot of interesting stuff along the way, including things I knew nothing about (like Latin American countries bailing out of the League of Nations very early on because they didn’t care for it).

  8. Oh, I have nothing against French phrases, and as I say I am a regular reader of his, I just found that particular word worth noting (with mild irritation and a certain amount of amusement).

  9. Stu Clayton says

    déboire … vexation, disappointment … “‘Heaving’, vomiting (after a bout of heavy drinking”

    Cute play. It is similar to the German sich es nochmal durch den Kopf gehen lassen = “to reconsider” = “to puke”.

  10. marie-lucie says

    The English word that comes to my mind as closest in meaning to les déboires is ‘misfortunes’, with a suggestion that the unfortunate person probably deserved their fate. The nature of those misfortunes (always in the plural) is not specified, and the average speaker is not aware of the etymology (I had never thought of it).

  11. David Marjanović says

    people named Peregrine

    …He’s not actually pronounced worst + horn, is he?

    sich es nochmal durch den Kopf gehen lassen […] = “to puke”

    Ha! Awesome! I only knew the other meaning. 🙂

  12. Using the word anglicize to describe a change from Koch de Gooreynd to Worsthorne implies to me that there’s some connection in meaning or sound between the two names, but I guess choosing any random English-sounding name can be anglicizing.

  13. Déboire had me wondering if the Spanish resaca–undertow, hangover, consequence–had made it into English. It hasn’t, other than as a term for a dry riverbed in marshland. It is not an exact match for déboire, though there is some overlap.

  14. sich es nochmal durch den Kopf gehen lassen […] = “to puke”

    Ha! Awesome! I only knew the other meaning.
    It’s one of those jocular circumlocutions, like die Speisekarte durchgeben / faxen (same meaning).

  15. DM: Peregrine is a worse thorn, not a worst horn.

  16. David Marjanović says

    I should have guessed.

  17. marie-lucie says


    Getting back to LH’s introduction, I am amazed to find that a Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French has “‘Heaving’, vomiting (after a bout of heavy drinking”), unless the authors intend to give the etymologies or histories of currently colloquial terms, without warning the reader.

    The TLFI has examples and definitions from several centuries. The “usual” examples correspond to my own understanding of the word and its uses. Examples from writings by Charles de Gaulle and André Gide (both classically inclined writers) are not at all representative of “Modern Colloquial French”.

  18. the entry:

    n. m. Le déboire (joc.): ‘Heaving’, vomiting (after a bout of heavy drinking. The word is usually found in the expression après le boire, il y a souvent le déboire!).

  19. Stu Clayton says

    die Speisekarte durchgeben / faxen

    TIL ! I knew only the other one.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    Wursthorn (needs sharpening)

  21. marie-lucie says


    The word is usually found in the expression après le boire, il y a souvent le déboire!

    This comment makes it seem like the “expression” is a common saying, where the word is”usually found”. It rather sounds to me like someone looked up déboire, found the etymology, and came up with the “expression” as a joke (note the “joc” mention). When would this be “usually” said? Is a source given? a date? It is not in the TLFI which would mention it if it was a popular “expression”.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    “Usually found” is an expression of which I would expect amateur etymologists to be unusually fond.

    It occurs exactly once in the entire OED:

    [ad. Gr. κατ’ ἐξοχήν.]

    Pre-eminently, ‘par excellence’.
       The phrase is usually found in untransliterated Greek characters.

  23. Speaking of French, are reserves instead of reservations and submitted instead of subject(ed) in English interference from French?

  24. I like to think of myself as no slouch at reading comprehension, so I can’t say I was overjoyed to read this phrase in that review which tripped me up at least thrice in a mere ten words: “There, though innocent of the Carthaginian peace guyed by Keynes, …”

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    What I think the “common phrase” author may have been trying to explain / provide a spurious history for, is the real phrase “boire et déboire(s)” occurring in written French of the type you might see in a feuilleton. My impression is that this kind of wordplay needs no explanation and has no history; someone who is unaware of the etymology is just as likely to enjoy, or even formulate, an expression like “boire et déboire(s)”.

  26. What I think the “common phrase” author may have been trying to explain / provide a spurious history for, is the real phrase “boire et déboire(s)” occurring in written French of the type you might see in a feuilleton.

    Makes sense to me. The dictionary is excellent in general, but that’s a sloppy and unhelpful entry.

  27. David Marjanović says

    “There, though innocent of the Carthaginian peace guyed by Keynes, …”


  28. David Eddyshaw says


  29. I think it’s fair to say that “guy” in this sense is almost exclusively British/Australian (OED: 1970 G. Greer Female Eunuch 328 Vociferous women are guyed in the press). The OED does have one citation from Innocents Abroad, though.

    But seriously, citizens of the Benighted States of America: “Guy Fawkes” ? Was he in an episode of the Simpsons ?

  30. marie-lucie says

    boire et déboire

    The association of the two words, spoken jokingly by a character in some “feuilleton”, makes sense, but déboire in this context does not have to have the old, long-forgotten meaning in order for the joke to be appreciated.

    That meaning is adequately expressed today by the slang word dégueuler, a derivative of la gueule, literally “maw”, often used in Ferme ta gueule! “Shut up!” (neither word is one I would use in my usual speech).

  31. What’s Carthage have to do with anything in Europe, though?

    Wikt says the obvious, but adds that Carthaginian is synonymous with Punic, and Punic has a secondary meaning of: “Perfidious, treacherous, faithless.”

    I did not know that.

    I am reminded of the claim that Classical Chinese cannot be understood without knowing the body of literature that Classical Chinese was full of learnéd allusions to.

  32. Wikt says the obvious

    Just to spell it out and save others the trouble:

    A Carthaginian peace is the imposition of a very brutal “peace” intended to permanently cripple the losing side. The term derives from the peace terms imposed on the Carthaginian Empire by the Roman Republic following the Punic Wars.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    I imagine that the Carthaginian term for fides Punica translated literally as “Roman faith.”

  34. David Marjanović says

    Ferme ta gueule!

    Generally shortened to Ta gueule! in these latter days, with the /g/ often reduced to [ɰ ~ j].

  35. It is online:
    1 in a small window in the default pdf-viewer with its own save and full screen buttons, and also as a text below.
    2 in a large window in a different viewer.
    3 as an online dictionary.

    @marie-lucie, I thought the same and my quotation was meant to confirm what you said and clarify the context. But I browsed through several pages (including the preface)…. The definition seemed misleading, that was the problem, and I do not think it would have mislead me in the context. I do not expect their examples to be established or recognizable, they do not look like that. It seems, they recorded everything that they found in their corpus that looked “colloquial”, irrespectively of how widely it is used. They say it in the preface:

    To many a ‘purist’ it would have been wise to cite only literary or ‘confirmed’ sources for our material, but being basically impure we readily proclaim that ‘les mots dans le vent’, often merely overheard, are worthy of recording for their intrinsic linguistic value.

    Overheard is also my impression from reading it.

  36. to the extent that guy fawkes is a name in the u.s. these days, it’s almost entirely due to “V for Vendetta”.

    (which is perfectly reasonable: does anyone in the u.k. know the name leon czolgosz except through stephen sondheim zts”l?)

    (yes, i know how few people on this side of the atlantic know from cousin leon – but that’s because of how badly history is taught, not because they’ve never encountered his name)

  37. marie-lucie says


    Thank you for the explanation. I still wonder where the editors “overheard” the oldest definition of déboire. Perhaps among fellow dictionary makers.

  38. marie-lucie says

    David Marjanović

    Ferme ta gueule!

    Generally shortened to Ta gueule! in these latter days, with the /g/ often reduced to [ɰ ~ j].

    Not just “in these latter days”, I heard it a lot from boys (not TO me) when I was in school, decades ago!

    The pronunciation does sound unfamiliar, though quite possiblle in some areas. Where did you hear it?

  39. David Marjanović says

    All over the place. It’s been described in writing, too, but of course I can’t remember where.

    Anyway. Here’s one with an ordinary /g/, here’s one that has gone all the way to /j/, and I’m not sure what the sound in this is. This could contain [ɰ], but I’m not sure.

  40. Your second link is missing.

  41. I still wonder where the editors “overheard” the oldest definition of déboire. Perhaps among fellow dictionary makers.

    @marie-lucie, as I understand from your explanations, from within French “déboires” does not look very transparent.
    For me it looks more like dé-boire, so I would have understood the entry as “in the range from widely known meaning to a nonce word that a fellow dictionary maker could utter after two bottles.”

    The dictionary itself is a fun reading for a L3 speaker, but it is like glossed excerpts from recorded chatter (by members of undetermined social groups). This is why I liked “overheard”: it is how reading it feels. Perhaps it is useful as a reference (clarifying meaning of obscure words), but when I am browsing it I am not tempted at all to memorize anything (what if it is only known to the author’s classmates?), rather I make the same sort of grammatical/stilistical observations that I would make when reading a text, and I enjoy making them.

  42. > English has a capacious vocabulary, people; use it!

    To paraphrase an old Swedish politician, “We don’t need no fancy foreign words, when we have an adequate domestic vocabulary”.

  43. David Marjanović says
  44. drasvi

    Have fun with the “dictionary”, but a work that claims to to be about “Colloquial Modern French” should not present the etymology of a centuries-old word as its current colloquial meaning. From LH’s description it does not look like the work also lists the modern meaning.

  45. m-l, it’s not the kind of dictionary that includes all meanings, it’s specifically for learners to look up colloquial/slang meanings that might not be in regular dictionaries. I’m sorry this particular entry disappointed you, but if you browse via the links above you might discover it’s in general quite good. I’ve often found it useful myself — it’s coverage is very wide. But it’s neither Larousse nor the OED.

  46. David M

    I am tempted to say it back to you! I think I can say it “correctly”. I have probably heard it, without paying attention to the phonetics.

    But the change g > gy > y is attested in some dialects. The Acadians of Nova Scotia (at least some of them) have it, as did their ancestors from the Poitou-Vendée region.

  47. David Marjanović says


  48. Mr Hat,

    I understand that the book is not meant to be an all-purpose dictionary, but their gloss of déboire is neither modern nor colloquial. Unless the quotation is a modern one, needing an explanation of the word in order to fully understand the joke? Even then, it is misleading, as even You admitted.

  49. Yes, it’s not a good entry, I’m just saying it’s not representative.

  50. Andrew Szmelter says

    Maybe déboires is used with a humorous intention to parody the French-dominated diplomatic language that would have been used at the various congresses and treaty signings of that era?

  51. …is neither modern nor colloquial. Unless the quotation is a modern one, needing an explanation of the word in order to fully understand the joke?

    @marie-lucie, that is what I assumed.

  52. A misleading entry is more likely to mislead someone who is not a speaker of colloquial French, so I am trying to describe what it looks like to a foreigner.

    They have a corpus. “Le déboire” occurs in it several times in the “alcoholic” meaning, particularly in this line. The compiler understands it in the sense of “vomiting”. Perhaps it is not representative at all, perhaps this line was uttered by the same person each time. Colloquial corpora always include a certain number of such words. Then the compiler must take a decision: should he include it in the dictionary or analyze it as a nonce word?
    As I understand, these compilers tend to include.

    Again: I am not sure in the above.
    I am not trying to describe their method, I am trying to describe my expectations.

  53. a nonce word

    Hm. Compiling dictionaries of polysynthetic languages must be an interesting task:/

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    Not necessarily, though it will make the task of using such dictionaries more difficult.

    Kusaal (wouldn’t you know it?) exemplifies this. It’s not polysynthetic, but nouns compound with following adjectives and dependent pronouns, in the process adopting forms which usually differ from both the singular and the plural forms.

    It would obviously not be a brilliant idea to list under every noun like “goat” (say), all the words for “this goat”, “these goats”, “some white goats”, “that old goat” etc etc etc .. all of which are written as single words in the standard orthography: bʋkʋdkan “that (kan) old (kʋdʋg) goat (bʋʋg.)”

    Instead, you have to give the user of your dictionary the tools to analyse these words, while listing the elements like “goat”, “this”, “some”, “old” as entries in your dictionary – and no more. Otherwise madness looms …

    But then, you can’t use a Welsh dictionary unless you have some idea of the initial mutations. Or a Swahili dictionary if you don’t know about noun class prefixes. Just because SAE languages tuck all their morphology at the end to aid in alphabetisation doesn’t mean everybody has to ..

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    There is at least one justly famous dictionary of a polysynthetic language that springs to mind: Young and Morgan’s The Navajo Language. It comes with a three-hundred page grammatical “introduction” … (in very small print …)

    But then Navajo is not just polysynthetic: it’s ornery-polysynthetic.* Using dictionaries of Nahuatl is a doddle in comparison.

    * And famously described as “a verb-centred language in which all the verbs are irregular.”

  56. @David Eddyshaw, “what’s a word” is one of favorite topics of Mithun, and I remember in a popular text (that I found when I was looking for another her text and that I can’t find now*) she quoted a native speaker who was reflecting on coining words. I do not know whether he was speaking from English perspective or [his language] perspective, but he spoke of them as lexical items.

    Which made me think (possibly incorrectly) that an idiolect of a speaker can contain a larger number of words peculiar to this idiolect than, for example, my Russian, that still feel as “words”. That is, not phonological words, but recognizable words and names, that have a property “used by X, coined by Y”. Or in other words, that lexicalization can work differently for such a lnaguage.

    Perhaps I was lookign for this chapter. I did not find what I was looking for back then, and I can’t find the popular text now.

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    “what’s a word” is one of favorite topics of Mithun

    I think it’s an unanswerable question, because the answer depends on what you mean by “word”, and there are numerous perfectly sensible criteria for wordhood, and they don’t match. The best you can do in reality is try to definite your terms clearly for the purposes of particular treatise or paper you’re writing and then try use them consistently for the duration. If your terms happen to work for some other language(s) too, that’s really just a happy coincidence (unless the languages are closely related, or part of a Sprachbund, in which case this happy coincidence may turn out to be actually a piece of evidence.)

    This a big issue in Kusaal: the word-division conventions enshrined in the standard orthography are inconsistent – and IMHO basically just wrong, if I may be so inconsistent myself as to say so. But, to be fair, it’s not a straightforward matter to delineate “words” in a language in which several distinct and perfectly real words have ended up with the segmental form of … nothing. (Well, homophones are nothing exceptional …)

    For the issue of dictionary compilation, though, I’m not sure that it actually matters as much as all that. There’s no need to list words in a dictionary if their construction and meaning is absolutely transparent given the grammar. Just as there is no need in an English dictionary to list “walked” if you’ve got “walk”, so in a Kusaal dictionary, there is no need to list bʋpielig “white goat” if you’ve got entries for pielig “white” and bʋʋg “goat” (with a note there that its “combining form” is .) Whether bʋpielig is in fact “a word” or not makes no difference to this.

    On the other hand, you do need to list za’anɔɔr “gate” (say), because you can’t just deduce the meaning from the components zak “compound” and nɔɔr “mouth.”

  58. David Marjanović says

    There is at least one justly famous dictionary of a polysynthetic language that springs to mind: Young and Morgan’s The Navajo Language. It comes with a three-hundred page grammatical “introduction” … (in very small print …)

    They should have brought back the ancient Arabic convention of alphabetical ordering by the last letter. All dictionaries were rhyme dictionaries.

  59. Compiling dictionaries of polysynthetic languages must be an interesting task

    I’ve seen a 16th-century Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary that contained words for “to knock the ankles together while walking” and “to knock the ankles together while walking so as to injure them.”

  60. @Rodger: Do you remember which dictionary?

  61. David Eddyshaw says
  62. Indeed, thank you. p. 33: “Cutir el vn touillo con el otro caminando. nin,ocxinerechuia. nin,ocxinetechmotla. 1. herir o ludir el vn touillo con el otro lastimandose.”

  63. David Marjanović says

    I keep saying the knowledge of the world is at our fingertips. And I’m still not used to it.

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