The Savoyard and His Marmot.

I’m over halfway through Karamzin’s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler], his partly fictionalized report on his journey to Europe in 1789-90; published in parts during the 1790s and in full not until 1801, it made his reputation, and it’s easy to see why: its easy style (modeled, like so much “modern” writing of the day, on Sterne’s) and lively account of his travels, during which he dropped in on all his literary and philosophical heroes (Kant in Königsberg, Herder in Weimar, and so on) make for irresistible reading, and whenever I need a break from whatever else I’m plowing through I rejoin Karamzin on his journey. He’s in Switzerland now, spending the winter of 1789-90 in Geneva and wandering in fair weather all over the vicinity, into France and Savoy (the borders apparently being only nominally guarded), and I just got to a bit where he’s reflecting on the sudden change when you go from Switzerland, where people are industrious and everything is neat and clean, to Savoy, where… well, as he puts it: “Народ ленив, земля необработана, деревни пусты. Многие из поселян оставляют свои жилища, ездят по свету с учеными сурками и забавляют ребят.” [The people are lazy, the earth unworked, the villages empty. Many of the peasants leave their dwellings, wander the world with trained marmots, and amuse children.]

I immediately smiled and began humming Beethoven’s song “La Marmotte” (“Ich komme schon durch manche Land,” performed here; Russian version, “По разным странам я бродил,” here), about wandering the world with a marmot; I could have sworn I’d posted about it at some point, but no, I seem to be remembering this post (in Russian) by Anatoly from 2006, long enough ago that my memory lapse is more than understandable. At any rate, the Savoyard and his marmot were a real phenomenon; you can read about it (and see Watteau’s famous painting) here (“The marmot in its box was such a familiar object carried by itinerant Savoyards, that even today the word ‘marmotte’ still persists in modern French, to describe a commercial traveller’s sample box”). I did post about the Russian word сурок and its various translations (marmot, woodchuck, groundhog) way back in 2004.

Also, Karamzin tells at length the sad and noble story of Tancrède, the disavowed son of the Duke of Rohan, hidden away in Holland until he emerged to claim his rightful title only to die in the Fronde, and it occurred to me that although I’d seen the name Tancred in various contexts I had no clear idea of who any particular bearer of the name might be, and (more importantly) where the name was from. So I turned to Wikipedia, where the disambiguation page tells all:

Tancred or Tankred is a masculine given name of Germanic origin. Tankrad comes from thank– (thought) and –rad (counsel), meaning “well-thought advice”. It was used in the High Middle Ages mainly by the Normans (see French Tancrède) and especially associated with the Hauteville family in Italy. It is rare today as a first name, but still common as a Norman surname: Tanqueray. Its Italian form is Tancredi and in Latin it is Tancredus.

It would never have occurred to me to associate Tancredi and Tanqueray; you learn something every day.


  1. marie-lucie says

    Lots of links!

    The traditional language of Savoy is not French but Arpitan, formerly called franco-provençal. The song Avecque la marmotte must be a folk song, with only the piano arrangement by Beethoven. Avecque is an older, alternate form of avec ‘with’ but could also be the usual Arpitan form. I have heard the form in the local French of the region just South of Savoy. Incidentally, does the Russian quote actually say “learned marmots”, or “trained marmots”?

    It occurred to me after reading about the petits Savoyards formerly chimney-sweeping in France that my father’s ancestors in the male line were from a village in la Savoie, where no one of the name has lived for a century and a half, and that perhaps one or more of them came to Paris as chimney sweeps and stayed, perhaps later showing marmots as adults. When I was young I thought my family was boring, but the more I learn about them the more unusual they become! But perhaps that is a common reaction.

  2. Incidentally, does the Russian quote actually say “learned marmots”, or “trained marmots”?

    Literally “learned,” so it amused me to render it that way, but it’s also used of trained animals, so my original version is misleading and I guess I’ll replace it with the more prosaic word.

  3. John Cowan says

    Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, an amazing book on the history of magic and related performing arts by Ricky Jay, a magician and historian of magic. As it says at Amazon, “calculating pigs and acrobatic horses, stone eaters, poison resisters, daredevils, and mind readers”, as well as Matthias Buchinger / Matthew Buckinger, an armless and legless magician and painter of miniatures who gave his name to Buckinger’s boot, a slang term for ‘vagina’. I can’t resist retelling one of the book’s stories:

    A magician was performing the classic “saw a person in half” trick. He called for volunteers from the audience and selected one of the men, having him walk up to the stage. The trick went off as planned: the volunteer got into the box, which was duly sawed in half and the cut ends displayed to the audience. The magician rejoined the box, the volunteer got up (entirely intact, of course), shook the magician’s hand, and started to return to his seat.

    But he never got there. Halfway along, he collapsed to the floor, and split into upper and lower halves along the line of the saw cut. The halves began to crawl in separate directions: one half toward the stage, the other half back towards the seat. By the time the halves were a few feet apart, the eyes of all the audience were on them. The effect was sensational, in the fullest sense of that overused term. People screamed in horror, jumped out of their seats, and thundered for the exits. The theater had to be closed and the rest of the show canceled. The trick was never performed again: it was simply too effective to be bearable.

  4. marie-lucie says


  5. des von bladet says

    Graham Robb’s discovery of France remarks that wild marmots became extinct shortly after it was discovered that they were so relaxed they could be boiled alive without resisting. I am quite sad about this, and I wish someone had learned them to object.

  6. I am quite taken with both post and comments–the Savoyard marmots and the divided man, particularly. Lovely to read while the snow slides by the panes and the fire snaps.

  7. Siganus Sutor says

    Just remembering Brassens:

    Autrefois, quand j’étais marmot,
    J’avais la phobie des gros mots,
    Et si j’ pensais “merde” tout bas,
    Je ne le disais pas…

    Not the same kind of animal though.

  8. Apparently marmot ‘kid, brat’ is in fact from marmotte ‘marmot’; it goes back to the 17th century. The TLFi says: “1647 «petit enfant» (ici sans précision de sexe, et fig.) (VOITURE, Epitres et lettres en vers, LXXIII ds Œuvres, éd. A. Ubicini, II, p. 400); plus partic. 1668 «petit garçon» (LA FONTAINE, Fables, éd. H. Régnier, IV, 16, 20).”

  9. marie-lucie says

    des: I never heard this about marmots. Wild marmots are not extinct but they are probably not as common as they used to be. My family spent many summers in the Alps when I was young and when hiking above the tree limit we could hear them whistling, although we never saw one. According to the article marmotte, the marmots in the Pyrenees were extinct for centuries before being recently reintroduced, but in the Alps marmots migrated up into the mountains under the pressure of human expansion (and are coming down again and becoming less shy as the human presence is diminishing in the mountains).

    The article says that before the current strict regulations, mountain people captured marmots during hibernation, marking the dens before the winter so as to find them under the snow. Of course hibernating marmots would be “relaxed” and unable to resist. I doubt that there would have been any point in boiling them alive though: if prepared for food they would first have had to be skinned (and the valuable fur preserved) and the insides cleaned.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Siganus, LH: un marmot

    To me un marmot is a baby or toddler. I don’t think I would use the word for a child older than about 3 years old unless in the plural, lumping together two or more children young enough to be in daycare.. Obviously Brassens is using it for a child older than that. It may be because the word rhymes with un mot but it could also be a regional peculiarity (since Brassens was from the Mediterranean area).

    Siganus, do Martians use the word? If so, for what age group?

  11. des von bladet says

    p.75 “(The marmot is the large and floppy mountain rodent that sleeps in a burrow and was harvested rather than hunted, tossed into a rucksack and sometimes boiled when still asleep.)”

  12. marie-lucie says

    p. 75 where?

  13. This reminds me that Sunday was Groundhog Day (our native marmot, also called the woodchuck). Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so six more weeks of winter can be confidently predicted.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Here in Nova Scotia we have Shubenacadie Sam. He did not see his shadow, so that promises an early spring.

    That means a duel between the two groundhogs, I guess.

  15. Apparently a marmot (nowadays “kid, brat”) was originally a monkey. Up to the 19th century un marmot was the name of a big monkey with a long tail (DHLF). The feminine une marmote (single -t) was used at least between 1170 and the 14th century to mean “female monkey”.

    The marmot monkey business is said to have come from the verb marmotter, a variant of marmonner (“to mumble”), probably because of the lip movement often made by monkeys. The same origin is mentioned for marmotte, since the rodent apparently moves its lips while whistling. So in essence a marmot is mumbling, and that’s how it got its name.

    Marie-Lucie, marmot meaning “kid” is not a word used by Martians. I heard about it by listening to Brassens or through my readings. Marmotte isn’t used either, for lack of any marmot on Mars.

  16. m-l: Page 75 of Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, in fact. Earlier discussion.

  17. Here in Nova Scotia we have Shubenacadie Sam.

    In case anybody else was wondering, Wikipedia sez it’s pronounced [‘ʃuːbə’nækədiː]; as for the etymology:

    In the Micmac language, Shubenacadie (or Sipekne’katik) means “abounding in ground nuts” or “place where the red potato (i.e. Indian potato, Sagittaria latifolia) grows.”

  18. m-l: Page 75 of Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, in fact.

    Thanks again for the book, m-l! And I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in French history.

  19. Trond Engen says

    Six more weeks of winter would still make an early spring.

    Ditt murmeldyr! “you marmot” is a common Norwegian greeting/insult to heavy sleepers. And that’s odd, since the animal is neither native nor biblical. The word isn’t native either, but an obvious calque from German Murmeltier, which, according to Yann Caprona’s brand new Norsk etymologisk ordbok, was made by contaminating Lat. mus montis with murmeln “growl”. I don’t know why the Lat. term is needed, since the German word is a parallel to French marmotte < marmoter “mutter, mumble”. Both the German and the French names look recent. I wonder what they replaced.

    The book also notes that the name of the Croatian currency, Kuna, means “marmot”, a memory of when marmot furs were currency. I see that it’s a different word from Russian сурки.

  20. Actually, a kuna is a marten, as it is in other Slavic languages; cf. Vasmer:

    куна́ I., куни́ца – зверек “Мustela”, др.-русск. куна “денежная единица, равная 1/22 гривны, первонач. означало куний мех, стоящий 1 диргем” (Пов. врем. лет), затем куны мн. “деньги”, до ХV в. (см. Бауэр у Шрёттера, 333 и сл.), укр., блр. куна́, болг. куни́ца (Младенов 262), сербохорв. ку́на “куница, мех куницы”, словен. kúnа – то же, чеш., слвц. kuna, польск. kunа – то же, kunica “определенная форма платы”, в.-луж., н.-луж. kunа “куница”. ‖ Родственно лит. kiáunė “куница”, вост.-лит. kiaunė̃, лтш. саûnа, саûnе, др.-прусск. саunе, далее греч. καυνάκης “меховое одеяние варваров” (Аристофан, Арриан и др.); см. Зубатый, AfslPh 16, 413; Бернекер 1, 644; М.–Э. 1, 364; Траутман, ВSW 122 и сл.; Лёвенталь, WuS 10, 168. Сюда же др.-русск. кун(ь)ноɪе “приданое невесты”, ку́нщик “сборщик податей”; ср. Булат, AfslPh 37, 96 (с литер.). Из русск. заимств. др.-фриз. соnа (см. Вадштейн, IF Anz. 47, 317). О валютной роли шкурок куницы ср. Бернекер, там же; Шрадер–Неринг 1, 372. [См. еще Хольтхаузен, ZfslPh, 22, 1954, стр. 146. Совершенно беспочвенно сближение куна “деньги, выкуп за невесту” – в отрыве от других знач. – с хетт. kuš- “платить”; см. Махек, АО, 17, 2, 1949, стр. 133 и сл.]

  21. I saw a marmot once in the swiss alps. They’re not extinct there.
    Groundhog day in Chicago was as sunny as could be, but given the winter we’ve had so far, there was never any hope of spring coming either just around the corner or in only 6 more weeks (not that there ever is around here).

  22. Trond Engen says

    A marten is a different beast.

    But Croatian and Russian still use different words for the marmot. Judging from Wikipedia’s sidebar, Croatian has svisac, the same as Czech. Russian shares сурок with Belorussian, while Ukrainian has it’s own word, ба(й)бак. Polish, Serbian and Bulgarian wikipediae use ‘marmot’. Also the Baltic words are different, Lat. murkšķis versus Lith. švilpikai.

  23. ‘Marmot’ originally meant monkey? ‘Marmoset’ – presumably a variant of the same word – still does in English.

  24. Trond Engen says

    Polish, Serbian and Bulgarian wikipediae use ‘marmot’

    But that could be due to encyclopedic convention. I didn’t open them to read the native words. Polish naturally goes with Czech, the two others look superficially as though they use the ‘marmot’ word.

    But gleaning through the list of Latin names, I see both M. baibacina and M. bobak for different species of Marmota with ranges in Slavic-speaking regions. That also goes for M. kastschenkoi, the forest-steppe marmot from southern Russia, but that’s named for Nikolai Feofanovich Kastschenko.

  25. Pig strikes as a good word for marmot – we were fed marmot meet by the Kyrghyz poachers who hunted them, yes, for fur.

    It never occurred to me that Russian surok may be onomatopoeic – any sound similarities if existed must have become opaque over time. As a child, I imagined the beady-eyed marmot from the song when we were given, for a nack, a глазурованный сырок (chocolate-covered sweet cheese bar) 🙂

    M-L re: “учёный” learned (human) or trained (animal) – neither is the most popular translation. Most Russians would first utter, “scientist”. A classic Israeli Russian tale depicts a child psychologist baffled by a recurrent theme of an animal chained to a tree in his subjects’ drawings, which the kids describe to him as “Scientist Cast” 🙂 🙂 🙂 The creature is, of course, Trained Cat the Song-Singer from the opening stanzas of Pushkin’s “Ruslan & Ludmila”.

  26. Ah, the Khatul Madan! I first read this joke on itself.

  27. Yes, in this post from 2010.

  28. marie-lucie says

    learned/trained animals

    There are two possibilities in French: savant(e) and dressé(e)

    The article I mentioned refers to marmots trained to perform tricks as des individus dressés ‘trained specimens’. I think that dressé refers to a wild animal that has been trained, while savant is more likely to be used with a similarly trained domestic animal, even if both animals have been trained to do the same tricks. I would refer to “Clever Hans” as un cheval savant since he was alleged to have acquired human abilities. In Camus’ La Peste, the children of (I think) the judge are referred to sneeringly by one of the characters as chiens savants ‘trained dogs’ (trained to do things that dogs would not normally do, imitating human behaviour)’ – in this case, the children are too well-behaved to seem like normal humans.

    With humans, the verb dresser ‘to train” (as a transitive verb) cannot be used in the sense of ‘train for a profession’ as in English, instead it means ‘to subject (a youngster) to strict discipline’.

  29. Is сурок related to the anomalous Russian word for “forty”, сорок? Somewhere it seems to me I read that the etymology of сорок was an animal skin worth 40 somethings or other, or something like that.

  30. Nope. Neither word has a clear etymology, but the vowels make it pretty much impossible for them to be related.

  31. I think that dressé refers to a wild animal that has been trained

    Dressage is a competitive equestrian sport. The identical word is used in the French Wiki entry.

    With humans, the verb dresser ‘to train” . . . means ‘to subject (a youngster) to strict discipline’.

    As in “He was given a good dressing down” — and the ‘he’ can be of any age, and a ‘she’ too.

    According to AHD, the word goes back to assumed Vulgar Latin *directiare and to Latin directus. The sense is “to place, to arrange, to put in order.”

  32. John Cowan says

    The OED thinks that dress down in the punitive (rather than the sartorial) sense has to do with dressing leather, and puts it on a par with sense 11 of dress ‘treat or prepare (things) in some way proper to their nature or character’

  33. marie-lucie says

    JC, the verb dresser also mean ‘set up, set upright’, as in dresser la table ‘to set up the table’: not just set the plates, etc on the table as for an ordinary meal but take special care in preparing the table, perhaps extending it with “leaves”, using a special tablecloth, and often adding flowers, candles and other decorative elements. As I mentioned in another thread, medieval tables were not necessarily fixed but were often simply boards set up on trestles, which were dismantled afterwards until set up again for another meal. Similarly, convention hotels do not have huge dining rooms reserved for the purpose but use folding tables when preparing a “multi-purpose” space for a banquet according to the number of expected guests.

    I think that all the meanings of dresser, and some of the English dress words, have in common the special treatment required to impart to things, animals and even humans the appearance (and behaviour).considered socially desirable.

  34. I know a Tancred. He’s known as Tanc. He’s very nice and he runs a garage in the west of England. I think he must have been named for Disraeli’s Tancred, a novel I’ve never read (yet, but I’m thinking about it).

  35. des von bladet says

    Meanwhile on p.173 (op. cit.) we find Horace-Bénédict de Saussure pondering “in the early 1780s” the decline of the Chamouni marmot population, as a result of hunting. I guess I overegged the extrapolation; my bad.

  36. The word isn’t native either, but an obvious calque from German Murmeltier, which, according to Yann Caprona’s brand new Norsk etymologisk ordbok, was made by contaminating Lat. mus montis with murmeln “growl”.

    Sigh. The German word murmeln has never meant “growl”, but always “murmur” or “mutter” of some kind of other. A few hundred years ago foxes and marmots supposedly indulged in murmeln, but what that refers to exactly I don’t know. See the Grimm lemma:

    6) murmeln, von dem tone der füchse: was hilft es mit dem löwen brüllen, mit dem pferd hinnen, mit den füchsen murmeln, mit den fröschen quaquen, mit der hennen gracken, mit dem pfauen pfuchzen? SCHUPPIUS 760; vom tone der murmelthiere: zu zeiten söllend sy an der sonnen vor jren löcheren mit einanderen spilen oder gopen, etwas murmlen, bällen gleich den jungen hunden oder katzen.

    Foxes bark and squeak – maybe they even growl, but “growl” is knurren. I go with Sig’s explanation: “So in essence a marmot is mumbling, and that’s how it got its name”.

  37. There is a “sort” of comic bullfight called “Don Tancredo”. Its etymological origin is confused but it seems related to an “torero” who had that first name, according to Our dictionary contains a word that came from it: “dontancredismo”; it means, pretty much, “unperturbed attitude showed by who seems doesn’t realize that there is a danger.” Often it’s used in a pejorative sense, above all, against politicians.

  38. Dmitry: “It never occurred to me that Russian surok may be onomatopoeic.” Vasmer allows for that – he notes the consensus that the origin is Turkic, but adds that сурок is an imitation of its whistling. Honestly, I just don’t hear it in the word.

    Trond: Russian has much the same expression, “to sleep like a marmot.” As for the kuna, the animal depicted on the one-kuna coin looks rather agile and lean rather than sleepy and flabby. The word seems to mean the same as the good old Russian куница. There’s some ambiguity though as the word applies to the whole genus Martes, and while some of its species are undoubtedly martens (куницы), one is the sable (соболь, Martes zibellina).

    Croatian coins are lovely. There’s one with a nightingale – slavuj – and although the Russian соловей is a close relative, it was only when I saw the Croatian coin that it dawned on me what Slavoj Žižek’s first name means.

  39. although the Russian соловей is a close relative, it was only when I saw the Croatian coin that it dawned on me what Slavoj Žižek’s first name means.

    Ha, that never occurred to me either! But I can’t think of him as a nightingale; he’s more of a crow.

  40. @Stu: (What Does the Fox Say?) because someone had to do it.

  41. marie-lucie says

    Alexei: Vasmer …. [says that] сурок is an imitation of its whistling. Honestly, I just don’t hear it in the word.

    As a historical linguist, I can tell you that when all else fails, many of my colleagues are prone to resorting to onomatopeia as an explanation even in cases where a word of disputed origin does not at all resemble any natural sound. Just because the word here begins with the sound [s] is hardly a sufficient reason to declare it onomatopeic.

  42. Treesong: What Does the Fox Say?

    They’re telling us that foxes sing, I guess. Here is perhaps the sound meant by murmeln: fox kits playing. But I wouldn’t call it murmeln.

  43. Because murmeln, like “mutter” and “mumble”, is a low-frequency sound. Most of the fox sounds I’ve found in the internet are high-pitched.

  44. Maybe there was a Great Growl Shift in the past few hundred years. Someone should do a historical study of fox sounds as fossilized in writings on them.

  45. Alexei: Vasmer …. [says that] сурок is an imitation of its whistling. Honestly, I just don’t hear it in the word.

    marie-lucie: As a historical linguist, I can tell you that when all else fails, many of my colleagues are prone to resorting to onomatopeia as an explanation even in cases where a word of disputed origin does not at all resemble any natural sound. Just because the word here begins with the sound [s] is hardly a sufficient reason to declare it onomatopeic.

    שרק sharak means ‘he whistled’ in Hebrew. The sound so emitted is a שריקה shrika. According to BDB, the word is found in Leviticus and has a cognate in Aramaic. BDB says the primary meaning of the biblical word is ‘hiss,’ but that’s a secondary meaning today — so secondary I didn’t know it until I looked it up.

    Google [ whistle museum ] for a special bonus.

  46. The Hebrew letter ש can be pronounced as shin or sin, depending on whether the diacritic is placed on the upper right or upper left: שׂ שׁ. There are a few words in Hebrew where at least colloquially pronunciation can go either way.

    Hebrew שמעון Shimon became Σίμων or Συμεών Simon or Simeon in the New Testament because Greek doesn’t have an SH sound. When Cyril and Methodius adapted the Greek alphabet to create a Slavic counterpart they overcame the deficiency by borrowing the Hebrew letter: Ш. See Sha for more.

  47. I suppose I should reveal how the trick was done. The person walking back to his seat was in fact two people: a Little Person sitting on the shoulders of another Little Person. The clothes concealed this from the audience. But what made the trick so utterly convincing was that the “volunteer” originally sawed in half was the upper LP’s otherwise (nearly) identical twin brother!

  48. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Jesús: there seems to be contemporaneous historical documentation of the existence of one Tancredo López, who’d perform that suerte. Google Books includes a few examples:

    se dió otra novillada con seis toros de la torada andaluza de Gonzalez Nandín, siendo los díestros contratados para estoquearlos Morenito de Algeciras, Algabeñito y Camisero, tomando tambien parte en la misma Tancredo Lopez. (Almanaque del diario de Barcelona, 1899)

    Finalmente, durante el año se celebraron gran número de becerradas y en algunas de ellas hicieron las delicias del público Tancredo López, Garrufo y Cojuelo. (Las provincias, diario de Valencia: Almanaque para el año 1898)

    Pío Baroja recalls the story in his memoirs:

    Del teatro llegó la canción sobre el extravagante Don Tancredo, el rey del valor. El cómico que imitaba a Don Tancredo López en una piececilla de teatro aparecía vestido, como él, de fantasma. En la plaza, Don Tancredo se subía en un banquillo, y con los brazos cruzados esperaba que llegara el toro.

    El animal se lanzaba sobre él, y al acercarse quedaba sin duda asombrado ante aquella figura blanca que debía de parecerle sin vida; entonces la olfateaba, resoplaba y se iba.

    En el teatro, el cómico cantaba:

    Don Tancredo, don Tancredo,
    que en la vida tuvo miedo;
    don Tancredo es un barbián.
    Hay que ver a don Tancredo
    subido en su pedestal.

  49. From Chloe Aridjis, Magic Lanterns (LRB, 3 November 2022; archived):

    In some cases, the lanternists themselves became part of the lore; the Savoyards, 18th-century itinerant wanderers, would leave their mountain homes in late October to travel the countryside with a magic lantern strapped to their backs, its tall chimney like a ship’s funnel powering their journey. They led a portfolio existence: peep shows by day and magic lantern shows by night, as well as offering their services as chimney sweeps. To judge from surviving engravings, Savoyards often played the hurdy-gurdy and kept as a companion a marmot, a large ground squirrel whose piercing squeaks must have added to the atmosphere. Savoyard lanterns, rough-and-ready objects that bore the marks of weather and regular use, tended to be crudely made and weak in illumination.

    Chloe is the daughter of Homero Aridjis, discussed here a decade ago; the family name is a Hispanized version of Ἀριτζής.


  1. […] I read Karamzin I missed all the fun stuff about marmots, and even if I’d paid attention to that animal I wouldn’t have realized a сурок is […]

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