frontispiece and title page from a 1688 edition of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme
In his comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (literally The Bourgeois Gentleman – 1670), the French playwright and actor Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – 1622-73) invented the word Mamamouchi, an imaginary Turkish title that Monsieur Jourdain is gulled into thinking the son of the Grand Turk confers upon him. (Jourdain is a bourgeois whose aim is to be accepted as an aristocrat; in order to be allowed to marry Jourdain’s daughter, the middle-class Cléonte has disguised himself and presented himself to Jourdain as the son of the Grand Turk.)
The word Mamamouchi is perhaps from Arabic mā menhu šī, meaning there is nothing to be obtained from him, he is no good at anything, composed of mā … šī, nothing, and menhu, minhu, from him.
An alternative hypothesis is that the word is an alteration of Arabic baba mouchir, a flattering appellation which can be translated as father pasha, from Arabic bābā mušīr, composed of bābā, father, daddy, and mušīr, councillor, minister, commander of an army corps.
(In writing Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Molière collaborated with Laurent d’Arvieux (1635-1702), a French merchant who had travelled throughout the Levant and learned Arabic among other languages. D’Arvieux also designed the Turkish costumes for the first performance of the play on 14th October 1670 before the court of Louis XIV at the Château de Chambord.)
Mamamouchi entered English in The citizen turn’d gentleman (1672), an adaptation of Molière’s comedy by the English playwright Edward Ravenscroft (floruit 1659-97), in which Jourdain is Jorden:
– Trickmore: In fine, to tell you my whole embassey, he is coming down to demand your Daughter in marriage, and to make you worthy to be his Father-in-Law, he will make you a Mamamouchi, which is the greatest honour and dignity among the Turks.
– Jorden: A Mamamouchi?
– Trickmore: Yes, a Mamamouchi; that is to say, a Paladin, and a Paladin is a sort of the most ancient. In fine, a Paladin is a Paladin, and a Paladin and a Mamamouchi are all one and the same thing: nothing is more noble in the world, and you may walk cheek by Jowl with the greatest Seigniors upon Earth.
This adaptation of Molière’s play was successful, chiefly owing to the burlesque procession of Turks employed to dub Jorden a Mamamouchi. But a few months later, the English poet, playwright and critic John Dryden (1631-1700) attacked Ravenscroft in the prologue to The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery (1673):
You must have Mamamouchi, such a Fop
As would appear a Monster in a Shop:
He’ll ﬁll your Pit, and Boxes, to the brim,
Where, ram’d in Crowds, you see your selves in him.
Sure there’s some Spell our Poet never knew,
In Hullibabilah de, and Chu, chu, chu¹.
But Marabarah sahem¹ most did touch you,
That is: Oh how we love the Mamamouchi!
Grimace and Habit sent you pleas’d away:
You Damn’d the Poet, and cry’d up the Play.
¹ These are quotations from Ravenscroft, who wrote:
Mufti singing and dancing.
Hula baba la chou, ba la haba la da².
– Trickmore: He has a mind to be your Son in-Law.
– Jorden: The great Turk be my Son-in-Law?
– Trickmore: Yes, Sir, he call’d me to him just now, and speaking in his own Language, said, Acciam croc soler ouch alla Moustaphi gidelum amanahem vorahini oussere carbulath³, (That is to say) This is that fair person I yesterday saw pass along the street: This is she I languish’d for, and knew not where to find.
– Jorden: The Great Turk say this of my Lucie!
– Trickmore: I told him she was wondrous beautiful: Then, said he, Marababa sahem⁴, Ah how much in love am I!
– Jorden: Marababa sahem, mean, ah how much in love am I!
– Trickmore: Yes.
– Jorden: I am beholden to you for telling me, for I could ne’er have thought that Marababa sahem, should signifie, Ah how much in love am I! Ah this Turkish is a most admirable Language.
In the French text:
² the mufti sings “Hu la ba ba la chou ba la ba ba la da”;
³ this sentence is “Acciam croc soler ouch alla moustaph gidelum amanahem varahini oussere carbulath”;
⁴ this is identical.
Mamamouchi came to designate a pretender to elevated dignity, viewed as an object of derision. In a letter to the English diplomat Horace Mann (1706-86) dated 25th June 1749, the English author and politician Horace Walpole (1717-97) used the word with reference to the Duke of Newcastle, Chancellor of Cambridge University:
Don’t flatter yourself with your approaching year of jubilee; its pomps and vanities will be nothing to the shows and triumphs we have had, and are having. […] There have been, I think, no less than eight masquerades, the fire-works, and a public act at Oxford: to-morrow is an installation of six Knights of the Bath, and in August of as many Garters: Saturday, Sunday, and Monday next, are the banquets at Cambridge, for the instalment of the Duke of Newcastle as chancellor. The whole world goes to it: he has invited, summoned, pressed the entire body of nobility and gentry from all parts of England. His cooks have been there these ten days, distilling essences of every living creature, and massacring and confounding all the species that Noah and Moses took such pains to preserve and distinguish. It would be pleasant to see pedants and professors searching for etymologies of strange dishes, and tracing more wonderful transformations than any in the Metamorphoses. How miserably Horace’s ‘unde et quo Catius’ will be hacked about in clumsy quotations! I have seen some that will be very unwilling performers at the creation of this ridiculous Mamamouchi. I have set my heart on their giving a doctor’s degree to the Duchess of Newcastle’s favourite—this favourite is at present neither a lover nor an apothecary, but a common pig, that she brought from Hanover: I am serious; and Harry Vane, the new lord of the treasury, is entirely employed, when he is not at the Board, in opening and shutting the door for it.