Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

An Old French expletive and The Three Musketeers

Jerry Stratton, March 11, 2014

My current writing project references The Three Musketeers a lot, so I’ve been rereading my own archive here on Negative Space. In the process I’ve been fixing errors. Most of them are obvious. This weekend I ran across the following exchange between d’Artagnan and his lackey Planchet in A Family Affair:

“Well!” cried D’Artagnan, “tell us all about it.”

“Dame, that’s a long job, monsieur.”

In context it seemed like an odd typo for “damn”, but before fixing it I thought I ought to look for confirmation. A quick Google search on the text absent the “dame” found a page full of entries all with the strange word.

Well, perhaps they all come from the same original source. Mine came from an early online source, probably the On-line Book Initiative.

I looked it up in my paperback version—I already knew my paperback and the online version are from different translations—and their translation used “Lord”, which sounds more appropriate:

“Lord, monsieur, that’s a long job.”

I also have a paperback in the original French. In that book, the word appears verbatim:

— Dame! c’est bien long, Monsieur

Is my paperback’s translator right? While it makes sense in context, I have never heard “Dame” used to mean anything other than “Lady” in French. A Google translate query of the original French came back with:

Lady! It is very long, sir.

Which, besides being oddly suggestive is completely out of character for Planchet. It is, however, the translation I expected. Was Lady some strange expletive in French in the time of Dumas, as it sometimes seems to be in old movies in English? I did a Hail-Mary Google search on “dame French exclamation” and got:

Dame! which must not be confounded with the feminine substantive dame (=lady), is the abbreviation of Dame-Dieu, an Old French exclamation equivalent to Seigneur Dieu (=Lord God). We constantly find in medieval texts: que Dame-Dieu nous aide! (=the Lord God help us!). Dame-Dieu, and simply Dame (that is to say, Lord God), was used as an interjection; and the exclamation Ah! dame (=ah! well), which, nowadays, has lost all meaning, signifies really Ah! Seigneur! (=ah! Lord!). The word dame is still found in the geographical names Dammartin, Dampierre, etc., which signify the Lord Martin, the Lord Peter, etc.

So that’s it. It was a contraction of an expletive already old in Dumas’s time from a word that no longer even existed in French. In English it makes no sense to copy it directly; it needs its meaning translated. The translator who chose to give up and include the word verbatim, even though it matched a word in English, made a poor choice, in my opinion. Nowadays, of course, with the Internet, the research is a lot easier to perform.

  1. <- The Secret Knowledge
  2. No One Left to Lie To ->