bon mot

Printable Version
Pronunciation: bahn-mo Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A witticism, a clever or witty turn of phrase.

Notes: The plural of bon mot is bon mots or bons mots, both pronounced [bahn-moz] unless you prefer the French [bõ moz]. A bon mot is a particularly well-turned phrase, distinguished more by wittiness than by profundity, such as Adlai Stevenson's famous line, "A politician is a man who approaches every question with an open mouth", or Lyndon Johnson's characterization of a senatorial colleague as someone who could not chew gum and walk at the same time. Apothegms and maxims are more purposeful philosophical opinions, such as Lord Acton's famous apothegm, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely", or Charlemagne's profound maxim, "To know another language is to have a second soul."

In Play: People who craft bon mots are always a pleasure: "Sam Westgate fights the anfractuosities of the federal bureaucracy with a quiver of finely crafted bon mots", implies that Dr. Westgate approaches his work with a reservoir of cleverly turned phrases. He might even use this one, again by the past master, Adlai Stevenson: "In America any boy may become president; I suppose that's the risk he takes."

Word History: Today's word is a French expression meaning "good word" or "good saying", based on bon the remainder Latin bonus in France. The direct English translation of this French phrase is also idiomatic in a different sense. We say, "Put in a good word for me." The title of this series is, "So, what's the good word?" (Check the top of this page.) The Italian version of mot is motto, and a motto is a bon mot of sorts. Both words come from late Latin mottum, from muttire "to murmur, utter". Latin bonus "good" derives from an original dhe-/dho- plus the suffix -en, also the source of bene "well", found in English borrowings such as benefit, benediction, and benign. Initial [dh] did not convert to [b] in Greek and so appears with the same -en suffix in Greek dynasteuo "I rule, I oppress", found in the English borrowings dynamic, dynasty, and dynamite.

Dr. Goodword,

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