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bête noire

Printable Version Pronunciation: betnwah(r) Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A threat, something feared and to be avoided, a bane, something that makes life miserable for an individual or organization.

Notes: Today's word is good for representing any distasteful threat. Because it is actually a French phrase, it has no relatives in English with one possible exception. Some people refer to the red bug called a chigger or jigger (the larval Thrombidium) a bÍte rouge "red beast" because it causes relentless itching. In A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh wrote, "He had picked up bÍtes rouges in the bush and they were crawling and burrowing under his skin."

In Play: Many of us have personal bÍtes noires, "The Vietnamese War turned into a bÍte noire of President Lyndon Johnson, one that he could not evade." But a bÍte noire need not be so large, "Gladys Friday's bÍte noire in high school was mathematics until she fell in love with a geek with a full-function calculator she could keep out of the visual range of her teacher."

Word History: Any time you see a hat on a French vowel, you know that an [s] used to follow it. So bÍte was beste when we borrowed it for English beast. It originated in Latin bestia "beast". French noir "black" devolved from Latin niger "black". The [g] was lost because French vowels are rather merciless to lone consonants stranded between them. This is also how Latin vitellus "calf" ended up as Middle French veal when we borrowed it. The fact that the same word is veau [vo] "calf" in French today suggests that French vowels are just as merciless to consonants at the ends of words. (Today we thank Chris Stewart, a long-standing bÍte blanche of Good Words and a friend from the very first Word-of-the-Day days.)

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

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