Mind your language

From moustache to extremist – the journey of ‘bigot’

27 July 2019

9:00 AM

27 July 2019

9:00 AM

How might an oath lend its name in England to a religious extremist and in Spain to a moustache? That has been the claim for the German bei Gott as the origin of English bigot and Spanish bigote.

In his Gatherings from Spain (1846), the great English traveller Richard Ford did not doubt the origin of bigote, ‘moustache’. ‘The free-riding followers of Charles V, who wore these tremendous appendages of manhood,’ he explains, ‘swore like troopers.’ The Spanish connected their oath bei Gott with their moustaches, and named the one thing from the other. Did not the French in the Peninsular War, he observes, call the English soldiers Goddams?

The trouble is that the Spanish word bigote for ‘moustache’ had been listed in 1495 (five years before Charles V was even born) in Antonio de Nebrija’s Spanish-Latin dictionary. But there is a far earlier instance of bigot, or at least bigoz, as a term of opprobrium. According to the 12th-century Norman poet Wace, it was used by the French of the Normans. Wace does not mention moustaches, but he does mention Roger Bigod, by then bearing a nickname that had become a surname. He’d come over to England with the conquerors and, when William II deposed him as Sheriff of Norfolk, persuaded him, by seizing Norwich Castle, to put him back.

If these Norman weren’t noted for moustaches (which the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Anglo-Saxons sporting), were they for bigotry? The earliest meanings of bigot in English (from the late 16th century), were ‘religious hypocrite’ or ‘superstitious adherent of religion’; only from the 1660s did it come to mean a ‘narrow and unreasonable believer’. If this word, from the medieval French word bigot, derives (like the Spanish bigote) from an English or Germanic version of by God, the meanings don’t hang together. Soldiers are known for their blasphemous oaths, but religious extremists, even if hypocritical, are not.

One still sees online the exploded 17th-century idea that bigot was an Old French form of Visigoth (supposedly because the Visigoths had been heretical Arians, though King Reccared saw the light in 589). It looks as though bigote and bigot are of uncertain origin, but people prefer a memorable story to honest ignorance.

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