Daily Archives: September 5, 2010

bibelot

Perhaps, on some evening, you might happen to imbibe a lot of bubbly, and your standard might be below usual… You fall prey to the blandishments of some bibulous babbler, who takes you upstairs… But it is not etchings your new lobbyist wishes to display; no, you are in the toils of a zealot of baubles and curios: you are parked in a library of bibelots, a veritable bibelot-theque. Mawkish pawing would even be preferable to dorky discourse on Hummel figurines and faux Fabergé eggs; by the end of the evening you’re blubbering, gibbering, longing for liberation…

Bibelot may greet the eyes as some relation of bible or shallot or something like that; indeed, just as a zealot has zeal, might not a bibelot be a big imbiber? But no, don’t think it; a bibelot is more like a trinket. Oxford defines it as “a small curio or article of virtù.” Merriam-Webster gives this example: “practically every horizontal surface in the Victorian parlor was blanketed with fussy little bibelots.”

And the pronunciation is à la française:* “bib low” or “be below”. It sounds a bit like an old mimeograph or not-so-new photocopier… or perhaps whatever machine it is that makes endless copies of these geegaws and knick-knacks. (Does every bibelot have a double? Indubitably so.)

The reduplication pattern seen in words such as geegaw and knick-knack also appears to play a part in the origins of bibelot, by the way – as befits an object that is diminutive and the focus of endearment or fascination. It would seem that bel (Middle French for “pretty”) was duplicated to make belbel “plaything”, and that took on phonological modification and a diminutive suffix to make beubelet “trinket, jewel” – the source of bibelot and also, it seems, of bauble.

Oh, all those little loveables, with their /b/ sounds and the licking liquid /l/ – they may make a body go gaga like a little bitty baby, but they are also in the same gleaming-bangle world as bling. The silent t at the end may add a taste of acuity (or anyway a cutie), but in the end they are all eye candy for the baby blues to nibble on.

*I am put in mind of the apocryphal story of Dame Margot Asquith meeting Jean Harlow. Harlow, the story goes, asked if the Dame’s name was pronounced “mar-got.” Asquith replied, “No, the t is silent, as in Harlow.”