Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
If you think the word bizarre looks rather French, you’re on the right track. English borrowed the word from French in the 17th century, and it meant then approximately what it means now: “odd, grotesque, fantastic.” The French, however, borrowed the word from the Italian bizzarro, which appeared in Dante in the early 14th century with a meaning like “hot-tempered, easy to provoke,” from the earlier bizza, “fit of anger.”
In Italian, bizzarro evolved a sense meaning “unpredictable, eccentric” — a more general description of someone who is hot-tempered — and this is the meaning that was borrowed into French and then into English, where its sense evolved a bit more.
This lexical progression on its own isn’t really all that, well, bizarre, but that isn’t the only route the word took. The Italian bizzarro also passed into Spanish, becoming bizarro, meaning “brave, gallant.” That’s a far cry from the word we know.
In another weird twist, there has long been a theory that bizarre derived not from Italian but from Basque, a language that is unrelated to all other languages used in Europe. As the theory goes, bizar, the Basque word for “beard,” was adopted into Spanish and then found its way into French. However, current evidence shows that bizarre appeared in French before bizarro appeared in Spanish, so the timeline doesn’t support the Basque etymology. Plus, the shift from “beard” to “unpredictable, eccentric” is a little hard to explain.
Lastly, fans of DC Comics will recall the character Bizarro, a sort of inverted doppelganger of Superman who often appears as a villain but is sometimes forced into a heroic role. Bizarro is the perfect name for this character because he has been all these things that have sprung from bizzarro: odd, grotesque, fantastic, hot-tempered, easy to provoke, unpredictable, eccentric, brave, and gallant.
And he’s rarely drawn sporting a beard.
Featured image: NickolayV / Shutterstock
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