When you read the sea of black on white that is a text, it is as diverse and full of different life forms as the sea itself. It boils with the fantastic fish of words, all their different shapes, and the plankton and krill of periods and commas, and the catching bird claws of apostrophes and quotation marks, and on and on. But just as different seas have different kinds of life, so different languages have different forms of life in their textual waters. Some languages – French in particular – have birds that dive into their waters and swim after the fish: « these ». You see the wings angle as they push through and catch the text they enclose. They are all cupidity, hunger, desire in the head.
Desire in the head? How about a helmet of desire? There’s a name for that: will plus helm becomes Wilhelm or William or Guillaume or or or. And Guillaume has its diminutives and derivatives, two of which being Guillemet and Guillemot.
A French printer of the 1500s, Guillaume Le Bé (“Billy the B” in English, I suppose), invented handy little marks for enclosing quotations, and so those marks, « », came to be named for him, guillemets. The name might have you thinking of gulls, but these marks are not like any gull I’ve met; they are smaller, and black. They are like black birds that dive into the water and chase fish for their dinner. Black (sometimes black-and-white) birds that are called guillemots, not because they have helmets of desire (though they desire fish and chase them with their heads that sometimes look helmeted), but simply because they are named after the French name Guillemot, about which see above. They might look like gills for your bons mots, but they aren’t to help the words breathe; they’re to devour them in the open air.
But, oh, a note of warning. Guillemet is still entirely a French word, occasionally lent to English, and we say it like the French – the English approximation is “gee a meh” (with a g as in guy). Guillemot, on the other hand, has been comfortably in English for centuries, quite long enough to gain a spelling pronunciation: “gill a mot.” It has that French look but sounds more comfortable with the dipping claws “ and ”.
Meanwhile, the real textual guillemots, the guillemets, continue their dives into the chill waters of the text, never coming out empty-mouthed. « Bon appétit ».
Thanks to John Eerkes-Medrano for inspiring this note.