meaning and origin of ‘pour encourager les autres’

The phrase pour encourager les autres is used, of a punishment or sacrifice, to mean as an example to the others, to deter or encourage the others.

This French phrase is composed of pour, in order to, encourager, encourage, and les autres, the others.

It was coined by the French writer, playwright and poet Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet – 1694-1778) in Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759) with reference to the execution of Admiral John Byng, aged 52, in 1757.

Byng was sent in 1756 to relieve Minorca, then besieged by the French, under the Marquis de la Galissonière; but after a partial action, in which the English suffered severely, he was forced to bear away. He did not feel equal to renewing the action, and the place was taken. The British public became furious and ministers ordered the arrest of Byng, who was tried by court martial, found guilty of neglect of duty, and condemned to death. The sentence followed the finding, there being no option. The court, however, acquitted Byng of cowardice and of disaffection and recommended him to mercy. King George II refused pardon, and Byng was shot on board the Monarque at Portsmouth on 14th March 1757. After the trial, public clamour rose high against the ministers, who had not supplied Byng with a properly manned fleet, but who, in order to save themselves, had thrown a great part of the blame upon Byng.

Voltaire’s text is as follows in the original edition:

Candide & Martin vont sur les côtes d’Angleterre, ce qu’ils y voyent.

Ils abordèrent à Portsmouth ; une multitude de peuple couvrait le rivage, & regardait attentivement un assez gros homme qui était à genoux, les yeux bandés, sur le tillac d’un des vaisseaux de la flotte ; quatre soldats postés vis-à-vis de cet homme lui tirèrent chacun trois balles dans le crâne le plus paisiblement du monde, & toute l’assemblée s’en retourna extrêmement satisfaite. Qu’est-ce donc que tout ceci ? dit Candide, & quel Démon exerce par-tout son empire ? Il demanda qui était ce gros homme qu’on venait de tuer en cérémonie. C’est un Amiral, lui répondit-on ? Et pourquoi tuer cet Amiral ? C’est, lui dit-on, parce qu’il n’a pas fait tuer assez de monde ; il a livré un combat à un Amiral Français, & on a trouvé qu’il n’était pas assez près de lui ; mais, dit Candide, l’Amiral Français était aussi loin de l’Amiral Anglais que celui-ci l’était de l’autre ? Cela est incontestable, lui repliqua-t-on. Mais dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de tems en tems un Amiral pour encourager les autres.

translation (publisher: Boni and Liveright, Inc. – 1918):

Candide and Martin touched upon the Coast of England, and what they saw there.

They arrived at Portsmouth. The coast was lined with crowds of people, whose eyes were fixed on a fine man kneeling, with his eyes bandaged, on board one of the men of war in the harbour. Four soldiers stood opposite to this man; each of them fired three balls at his head, with all the calmness in the world; and the whole assembly went away very well satisfied.
“What is all this?” said Candide; “and what demon is it that exercises his empire in this country?”
He then asked who was that fine man who had been killed with so much ceremony. They answered, he was an Admiral.
“And why kill this Admiral?”
“It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him.”
“But,” replied Candide, “the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral.”
“There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”

The earliest use of the phrase by an English-speaking person is from The Derby Mercury (Derbyshire) of 5th March 1789; the following is about “the character of the present high Admiral of the Turks”:

When some Janissaries were not sufficiently active in extinguishing the flames of a fire, he ordered four of the most negligent to be thrown into it; a dreadfully effectual method, (to use the words of Voltaire, upon another occasion) pour encourager les autres.

9 thoughts on “meaning and origin of ‘pour encourager les autres’

  1. “un assez gros homme” is not best translated as “a fine man”. It means “a quite corpulent man”. Especially since “gros homme” is repeated further on.


    1. If not a “fine man”, perhaps “big man” (as in “big man on campus”) would be more accurate. I don’t think Voltaire intended to comment on the admiral’s waistline.

      That said, I do acknowledge that “fine man” was from a preexisting translation.


  2. The Chinese have a lovely expression 杀鸡骇猴 [殺雞駭猴 in traditional characters] shā jī hài hòu which literally means “kill chicken, scare monkey” or “kill the chicken to scare the monkey”


  3. Good article, but the English navy cannot be said to have suffered anything in 1756, since it did not then exist. It had ceased to be in 1707, when England joined itself in union with Scotland. Their navies merged to become the British Royal Navy.


  4. The reason why George II refused to grant clemency to Byng is also notable. Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder had required George to give up his title of Elector of Hanover because the Elector was a vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was on the other side of the war from Britain, and the Emperor could order George to declare peace. George maintained that if the Emperor gave such an order then it would be ignored. What could the Emperor do? Declare was against George? Regardless, George was forced to abdicate as Elector, which was a loss of prestige and income. So George was refusing to do anything that Pitt asked him to do.

    When Pitt asked George to commute Byng’s death sentence, George didn’t. So Byng was executed by firing squad.

    Incidentally, there’s an error in the article. The French for “time” is “temps”, not “tems”, which isn’t a French word.


    1. There have been spellings such as “tens” and “tems” since the 10th century.—Cf. Prononciation et orthographe, s.v. “temps”, published by the CNRTL (Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales).


  5. Salut Pascal, et merci pour l’histoire.

    I can’t pretend my French is anything better than “adequate,” though I can generally muddle my way through Le Monde when I’m looking for a French view on American affairs.

    The point being that there’s a construction here I’ve never encountered before.

    “Qu’est-ce donc que …”

    Is this common or anachronistic, or is it, as I suspect, an affectation gifted by Voltaire to his title character? How should it best be read?

    Merci d’avance.


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