Monday, January 20, 2020

'Boisterous or Arrogant Language, Boastful Assertion'

Occasionally I discover a new word precisely when I need it most and no other is quite appropriate. Take fanfaronade. Jonathan Swift was a prolific writer and though much of his work is judged minor, in my experience everything I have ever read by him was worth reading at least once, if only for the quality of the prose. About how many writers can we say that? In 1713, Swift published a preface to the third volume of Gilbert Burnet’s The History of the Reformation of the Church of England in which he writes:

“I was debating with myself, whether this hint of producing a small pamphlet to give notice of a large folio, was not borrowed from the ceremonial in Spanish romances, where a dwarf is sent out upon the battlements, to signify to all passengers what a mighty giant there is in the castle; or whether the bishop copied this proceeding from the fanfaronade of monsieur Boufflers, when the earl of Portland and that general had an interview.”

Thirteen years later Swift would memorably return to the theme of dwarfs and giants. The mention of Louis Fran├žois de Boufflers, Duke of Boufflers, and Hans William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, refers to a 1695 incident during the Siege of Namur in the Nine Years’ War. Fanfaronade, appropriately, is French in origin. The OED defines it as “boisterous or arrogant language, boastful assertion, brag; ostentation.” What word could be more applicable to public life today? The Dictionary also refers to a rare use of the word as a verb: “to bluster, swagger.” I’m reminded of an observation a newspaper colleague once made about an editor much given to fanfaronade: “He’s the first guy I’ve ever known who could swagger while sitting down.”

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