What is Chauvinism? Tracing the Term from the Legendary Nicolas Chauvin to Misogyny
In the modern world, a chauvinist is a person who has “excessive or prejudiced support for one's own cause, group, or sex”. Before this, the word ‘chauvinism’ had a narrower scope, and was used specifically to indicate an “excessive or aggressive patriotism”. Even earlier still, the word was applied to the devoted veteran soldiers who served under Napoleon.
Origin of the Word Chauvinism
Although chauvinism is a word that is widely used in the English language today, its origin lies in the French language. Chauvin is the French form of the Latin Calvinus, a surname supposedly common among the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. One such soldier was Nicolas Chauvin and it was from him that the word ‘chauvinism’ was derived. Incidentally, this surname is etymologically related to the word ‘chauve’, which is French for ‘bald’.
Chauvin was a derivative of Calvinus, a common surname among the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the birthplace of chauvinism. (Public Domain)
It is commonly agreed that Nicolas Chauvin was not an actual person and that he was created to embody the values of a certain group of Frenchmen during the 19th century. Despite his non-existence, stories have been attached to Chauvin and this character was featured in the Cogniard brothers’ popular 1831 vaudeville, La Cocarde Tricolore, which translates as ‘The Tricolor Cockade’.
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Nicolas Chauvin, Legendary Father of Chauvinism
According to the stories, Nicolas Chauvin was an inhabitant of Rochefort in southwestern France, and was born there around 1780. Some accounts state that he was born on July 4, 1776, the day the United States declared independence from Great Britain. At the age of 18, Chauvin enlisted in the French Revolutionary Army, which had been established in 1792 to defend the nascent French Republic from hostile European powers.
When Napoleon created La Grande Armée, Chauvin enlisted as well and participated in the many campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. During these campaigns, Chauvin was wounded as many as 17 times, which left him disfigured and maimed. In recognition for his contributions in the Napoleonic Wars, Chauvin was presented with a Sabre of Honor and a pension by Napoleon himself.
The Sabre of Honor was awarded to Nicolas Chauvin. (Rama / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815 and the monarchy was restored. During the Bourbon Restoration, which lasted until the July Revolution of 1830, Napoleon was no longer a popular figure in the eyes of the French public. Nevertheless, there were veterans of his army who still worshiped him as a hero and glorified his military achievements. The fictional Chauvin was one of these men, or was molded in their image and his name was applied to them.
Chauvinism Experiences Ridicule
Chauvin’s name was used to ridicule these veterans whose views ran counter to those held by the majority of French people at that time. These men were also derided as simpletons, which served to explain their blind devotion to a leader who had fallen from grace. In any case, Chauvin and the men he represented became a comic stereotype that was exploited by French playwrights of the 19th century.
Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole, the word ‘Chauvin’ was used to ridicule veterans who had fought under and still supported Napoleon. (Public Domain)
New Interpretations of Chauvinism
It was only in 1870 that the French ‘chauvinisme’ crossed the Channel and entered the English language as ‘chauvinism’. The word also acquired a broader meaning and was used to describe an “excessive or prejudiced support for one's own cause, group, or sex”.
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About a century later, the meaning of ‘chauvinism’ was modified once more. This time, the connotative adjective ‘male’ was attached to the word and was meant to describe the view held by some men that the female sex was inferior to their own. While ‘chauvinism’ may be applied to a broad range of prejudiced beliefs, it is most commonly used today as a synonym for ‘misogynism’.
Apparently, August 15 is designated as Chauvin Day. No explanation is given for the choice of this date and it seems unlikely that it is actually celebrated anywhere in the world.
Top Image: Napoleon's Return from Elba, by Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben. Napoleon walk between the two forces and said if they were to kill their emperor; they were to do it now. Chauvinism was originally a term applied to veteran soldiers who served under Napoleon. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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