the changing identities of the doryphore

 

CONTENTS:
PRIMARY MEANING OF FRENCH DORYPHORE
ORIGINAL MEANINGS IN ANCIENT GREEK
DERIVED MEANING IN FRENCH: ‘POTATO-EATING GERMANS’
MEANING PECULIAR TO ENGLISH: ‘GADFLY’

 

PRIMARY MEANING OF FRENCH DORYPHORE

 

The French masculine noun doryphore denotes the Colorado beetle, a yellow-and-black beetle native to America, whose larvae are highly destructive to potato plants.

 

ORIGINAL MEANINGS IN ANCIENT GREEK

 

This French word is from ancient Greek δορυϕόρος (= doruphόros), meaning spear-carrier, especially one of the bodyguard of kings and tyrants; as a proper noun, this Greek word also designated a statue, famous in ancient times, representing a young man walking with a spear on his shoulder, by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos (floruit circa 450-415 BC).

(Likewise, Christopher is ultimately from Greek Χριστοϕόρος (= Khristophόros), meaning Christ-bearing; St. Christopher was a legendary Christian martyr, adopted as the patron saint of travellers, since it is said that he once carried Jesus Christ as a child across a river.)

In Le Règne animal distribué d’après son organisation (The Animal Kingdom arranged according to its organisation – Paris, 1817), the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) explains that this beetle is called doryphore because

l’arrière-sternum s’avance en forme de corne.
the mesosternum is pointed like a horn.

 

DERIVED MEANING IN FRENCH: ‘POTATO-EATING GERMANS’

 

During the Second World War, the French applied this name to the German occupying forces. The American magazine Life of 16th September 1940 published Paris under the Swastika, in which the American journalist Sherry Mangan had written, while in Paris on 8th August:

The Germans are referred to ironically as “guests,” though the French “les invités” conveys an additional subtle overtone of reference to the way in which reactionary French officers smoothed the guests’ path. Another favorite term is “ces messieurs,” pronounced with elaborate, cutting politeness. But the best term which the French, always wittiest in adversity, have hit upon is “les doryphores.” Doryphores are insects which spread the potato blight and the term beautifully sums up the distaste of the French for seeing their guests perpetually stuffing themselves with boiled potatoes.

La Lettre de la France Combattante (1942) contains the following:

In Northern France men call them doryphores, potato beetles, the foreign pest that destroys the crops. To the South they are locusts, swarming greedy insects that turn a rich land into a desert.

The following photograph and caption are from Vichy vs. France, by Richard de Rochemont, published in Life on 1st September 1941:

Life - 1 September 1941 - Death to the Doryphores

Death to the Doryphores” is slogan of schoolchildren off for potato-bug catching. In France “doryphores” is nickname for food-grabbing Germans, who love potatoes.

 

MEANING PECULIAR TO ENGLISH: ‘GADFLY’

 

The English diplomat, author, diarist and politician Harold George Nicolson (1886-1968) introduced doryphore (which he also spelt doriphore) into English to denote a pedantic and annoyingly persistent critic, a sense unknown in French. He first used the word in the British magazine The Spectator of  4th November 1949, in his column Marginal Comment:

To be displeased by what is universally esteemed suggests a shabby mind. There are people who, in discontent with this vivid but distracting world, seek compensation in discovering fresh examples of human malignity or error. We all know those mean men who are unable to conceal their pleasure at such misfortunes as the alleged evasion of income tax on the part of dentists or the disinclination of Tanganyika Territory to produce groundnuts. Even more viperish is the man or woman who ministers to his or her vanity by searching for the motes in every eye, by examining the flecks which may mar the loveliest countenance. These Colorado beetles will spend hours searching for a misprint in the Oxford English Dictionary or selecting proofs of inconsistency from speeches made by politicians in 1932. I have known people who, although not by temperament envenomed by jealousy, will delight in detecting errors or lack of proportion in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that massive work to which I am so frequently indebted and which enables me with but slight research to convey the impression of a rich and varied erudition. I have known people who, although their lives are not in fact clouded by their inability to express themselves or to find scope for their activity, will derive actual pleasure from some mistake of fact or pronunciation on the part of a B.B.C. announcer. There are those who, when they read a book, are unable to surrender themselves to the enjoyment of what they are reading, but in whose brains a little demon sits with pencil poised, hoping to catch the author out. Such people are apt to write postcards to the author in which, under the guise of helpfulness, they demonstrate their own superior precision, advertence or knowledge. Yet although these doryphores may achieve the short delight of proving that an author has made a mistake on page 479, they can never know the slow, long pleasure of writing a large book with continuous application. They pick and nibble, do these doryphores. And if one of them reads these words, immediately the little demon in his brain will begin asking whether the word “doryphore” is a word which any English writer should legitimately use. Let me ease his pain; it is not.

On 16th October 1952, Nicolson explained in the same magazine:

Several people have written to me regarding the word “doriphore,” asking me to explain more exactly what I mean by this half-French, half-Hellenic, noun. […] I used the expression to designate a special type of pest or parasite that hangs as a louse upon the locks of literature. I needed a word descriptive of the exotic, un-English, origin of the animal, and one which, by its very sound, would suggest the tortuous persistence of its ways. I needed a word which, by its varied associations, would indicate the insensitiveness of the beast, its powers of penetration, its habit of feeding upon the leaves of others, its curious combination of the barbaric with the cultured, the ruthless with the epicene, the pedantic with the unimaginative. I needed something, moreover, to describe the philistinism of the pest, its destructive purposes, its crass vaunting, its inability to distinguish between the letter and the spirit, its passion for rules, regulations and formulas. I wanted a word suggestive of the questing prig.
[…] The doriphore, as I have said, is the type of questing prig, who derives intense satisfaction from pointing out the errors of others. His mind is mechanical and precise; his memory functions with the dispiriting regularity of an electronic brain; his self-assertiveness is an agony to all modest men; when he is not busy with his cross-word puzzles, he approaches the works of others as something to be nibbled and consumed. It is not, however, the mind of the doriphore that distresses me, so much as his soul. Nobody need be annoyed if, in the quietude of his study, with his books of reference around him, the doriphore spends happy hours checking whether an event occurred on March 22nd, 1767 or on March 19th. What is so abominable about the doriphore is that he is unable to keep his accuracy to himself; without a moment’s reflection, without permitting his conceit to be checked for one instant by any sense of proportion, he will immediately sit down at his desk and write a letter to The Times Literary Supplement, pointing out that the Professor ought to have said March 19th and not March 22nd.
[…] I ask all doriphores to examine their own consciences. Are they positive that, in nibbling so ardently at the leaves, they have not forgotten the purpose or the succulence of the potato that rests below? Are they positive that the emotions of self-esteem aroused within them by this un-apollonian activity are creditable emotions? Are they positive that, in displaying to the public their own pedantic philistinism, they are not actuated by a desire to suggest that they are themselves superior in knowledge and precision to those at whom they nibble?

Leave a Reply

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