bęte noire

Printable Version
Pronunciation: bet-nwah(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 bęte rouge "red beast" because it causes relentless itching. In A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh wrote, "He had picked up bętes rouges in the bush and they were crawling and burrowing under his skin."

In Play: Many of us have personal bętes noires, "The Vietnam War turned into a bęte noire of President Lyndon Johnson, one that he could not evade." But a bęte noire need not be so large, "Gladys Friday's bęte noire in high school was mathematics until she fell in love with a geek who had a full-function calculator."

Word History: Any time you see a hat on a French vowel, you know that an [s] used to follow it. So bęte 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 bęte blanche of our Good Words and a friend from their very first days.)

Dr. Goodword,

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