history of the word ‘contredanse’


La Trénis, Contredanse - Le Bon Genre - 1931 reprint

plate 19: La Trénis, Contredanse
source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque Nationale de France

from the 1931 reprint of the caricatures published under the title of Le Bon Genre (1827 edition), including Observations sur les modes et les usages de Paris; the following comment about La Trénis accompanies this plate:

(Année 1805.) Cette danse porte le nom de celui qui en est l’inventeur. Triste célébrité ! la manie des pirouettes a détraqué sa tête ; il est mort à Charenton.
(Year 1805.) This dance bears the name of its inventor. Sad fame! the mania for pirouettes has unhinged him; he died at Charenton [a lunatic asylum].



The noun contredanse, or contredance, designates a courtly French version of the English country dance, originating in the 18th century and similar to the quadrille.

It was borrowed from French contredanse, itself an alteration of English country dance.

The English country dance was introduced into France during the Regency (1715-23) of Philippe d’Orléans after the death of Louis XIV, and thence passed into Italy and Spain. In Descrizione delle prime scoperte dell’antica citta d’Ercolano (A description of the first discoveries of the ancient city of Herculaneum – 1749 edition), Niccolò Marcello Venuti (1700-55) wrote:

I canti, i balli, e i suoni erano le decorazioni della scena, che a noi sono pervenuti con vocabolo Inglese di contraddanze Country Dances quasi invenzione degli Inglesi contadini.
The songs, the dances, and the music were the embellishments of the scene, which have reached us with the English name of contraddanze, country dances, as if they had been the invention of the English country people.

The arrangement of the partners in a country dance in two opposite lines of indefinite length easily suggested the alteration of country to contre- (Italian and Spanish contra-), meaning opposite. However, in Dictionnaire de la langue française (1873), Émile Littré distinguished contredanse, a French “danse de salon” dating back (according to him) to the 17th century, from contredanse, “primitivement country-dance, sorte de danse rustique ancienne en Angleterre” introduced into France during the Regency. Littré wrote:

Il est visible que la country-dance était une sorte de branle qui n’avait rien de commun avec notre contredanse, et que celle-ci était une danse savante et polie et non une danse de campagne. La paronymie a confondu sous un même nom ces deux danses complétement différentes.
It is visible that the country dance was a sort of branle which had nothing in common with our contredanse, and that the latter was a sophisticated and polite dance and not a dance of the countryside. Paronymy has merged under a same name these two completely different dances.

But this theory is not tenable as no trace of the name contredanse has been found in French before its appearance as an adaptation of the English. Littré was perhaps reluctant to admit that a courtly French dance originated from a rustic and foreign form of entertainment.

New dances of the same type were subsequently brought out in France and introduced into England with the French name, which led some English speakers to the erroneous notion that the French was the original and correct form and the English an alteration of it. Thus a certain Paul Gemsage wrote the following, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle of April 1758:

Truth is a thing so sacred with me, and a right conception of things, so valuable in my eye, that I always think it worth while to correct a popular mistake, tho’ it be of the most trivial kind. Now, sir, we have a species of dancing amongst us, which is commonly called country dancing, and so it is written; by which we are led to imagine, that it is a rustick way of dancing borrowed from the country people or peasants; and this, I suppose, is generally taken to be the meaning of it. But this, sir, is not the case, for as our dances in general come from France, so does the country dance, which is a manifest corruption of the French contredanse, where a number of persons placing themselves opposite one to another begin a figure.


French has borrowed and altered, probably in a spoken environment, other English words; for example:

– English riding-coat, denoting a waterproof overcoat worn for horse riding, was altered to redingote, a form reflecting association with the diminutive suffix -otte, as in the baby-talk form menotte, child’s hand, diminutive of main, hand. The noun redingote came to denote in 18th-century France a man’s, then also a woman’s, full-skirted outer coat, and was introduced into England in these senses.

– The French place name Bicêtre (now Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, a commune in Val-de-Marne, near Paris) was derived from that of a local castle owned in the 13th century by John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester. Winchester was altered to Vinchestre, then Bichestre, and eventually Bicêtre.

– Two curiosities: in the 17th century, Duke of Buckingham* was Gallicised as Duc de Bouquinquant, and bowling green was adopted as boulingrin. The Grand dictionnaire universel du XIX ͤ siècle (1867), edited by Pierre Larousse, has the following:

Bowling-green (mots anglais signifiant ‘gazon où l’on joue à la boule’). Jardin. Forme britannique du mot français ‘boulingrin’, dont se servent ceux qui veulent faire preuve d’érudition, les mêmes qui disent ‘béby’ au lieu de ‘bébé’, ‘riding coat’ au lieu de ‘redingote’, c’est-à-dire des Français anglomanes qui, lorsqu’ils se sentiront atteints du ‘spleen’, iront se précipiter dans la Tamise pour que la patrie n’ait pas leurs os.
Bowling-green (English words meaning ‘area of closely mown grass on which the game of bowls is played’). Garden. British form of the French word ‘boulingrin’, used by those who want to show their erudition, the same who say ‘béby’ instead of ‘bébé’, ‘riding coat’ instead of ‘redingote’, that is to say, Anglomaniacal French who, when they suffer from the ‘spleen’, will throw themselves into the Thames so that the homeland does not have their bones.

(* The name Buckingham means the home (-ham) of the Buccingus, or dwellers among beech-trees.)


The colloquial French noun contredanse appeared in the early 20th century to denote a fine, now especially a parking fine; it is a jocular alteration of contravention, a fine, after the name of the dance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.