meaning and origin of ‘j’accuse’

 

L'Aurore - 13 January 1898 - J'accuse !

front page of the newspaper L’Aurore – 13th January 1898

 

 

MEANING

 

The English noun j’accuse denotes an accusation, especially one made publicly in response to a perceived injustice, and more generally a public denunciation.

 

ORIGIN

 

It is from French J’Accuse…!, meaning I Accuse…!, the title of an open letter that Émile Zola wrote to Félix Faure (1841-99), President of the French Republic, published on 13th January 1898 by the newspaper L’Aurore (Paris), condemning the imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus.

Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a French artillery officer of Jewish descent whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason caused a major political crisis in France. L’affaire Dreyfus ended in 1906 with Dreyfus’s rehabilitation.

Émile Zola (1840-1902) was a prominent French novelist of the late 19th century, noted for his theories of naturalism. He was also a major figure in the political liberalisation of France and in the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus.

The first recorded use of the English noun j’accuse is from The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life (New York and London) of March 1899:

The forthcoming book [of Victor Hugo’s posthumous works], which will continue the title ‘Choses Vues,’ will open with an eight-page account of the execution of Louis XVI, given to Victor Hugo in 1840 by a young man twenty years old at the time of the tragic event. Then follows a brief account of Napoleon’s arrival at Paris on March 20, 1815, several pages of conversations which the poet had with King Louis Philippe and other members of the royal family, many curious notes on the men and events of the Revolution of 1848, a diary kept by Victor Hugo during the siege of Paris, etc. […] The book has been printed for some weeks, but, on account of the Dreyfus case—you have no idea how this nightmare paralyzes every department of French life,—will not be published for several months to come. […] I wonder what Victor Hugo would say if he were on earth to-day. I predict he would out-Zola Zola with a ‘J’accuse’ of his own.

Incidentally, to out-Zola Zola was also used by the English novelist, travel writer and Officier de l’Instruction Publique de France Matilda Betham-Edwards (1836-1919) in French Men, Women and Books: A Series of Nineteenth-Century Studies (Chicago, 1911). About Honoré de Balzac, she wrote:

In June 1849 a terrible attack brought him to death’s door; hardly had he recovered from this than he caught what was called Moldavian fever, and the opening months of the following year found him slowly dying.
The last work touched by him was that cruel book, Les Paysans, in which, by anticipation, he out-Zola’d Zola, and ran counter to the quite opposite views of peasant life and character described nearly two decades before. Le Médecin de Campagne crushingly refutes its predecessor.

(Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a major French novelist chiefly remembered for his series of ninety-one interconnected novels and stories known collectively as La Comédie humaine.)

The English noun j’accuse has recently been used in its plural form j’accuses by the American journalists John Heilemann (born 1966) and Mark Halperin (born 1965) in Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (Harper Collins, 2010) about the 2008 US presidential election. Of Barak Obama, they write:

He believed it was possible to rise above the distortions and j’accuses that had turned politics into the sort of unedifying blood sport from which so many Americans recoiled.

 

L’affaire Dreyfus

 

This drawing by Caran d’Ache (Emmanuel Poiré – 1858-1909), dated 13th February 1898, was published in Le Figaro (Paris) the following day. It depicts un dîner en famille (a family dinner). At the top, the paterfamilias says Surtout ! ne parlons pas de l’affaire Dreyfus ! (Above all! let’s not talk about the Dreyfus affair!). At the bottom, the whole family are fighting and the caption says … Ils en ont parlé… (… They’ve talked about it…).

Caran d'Ache - un dîner en famille - 13 February 1898

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