What’s a ‘guignol’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: guignol …

When reader John Friesen sent me the word guignol, I didn’t recognize it, although I knew immediately it was French.

He found it in the book book Alexander 11: The Last Great Czar by Edvard Radzinsky. Here is how the author used it:

The inventive tsar came up with a little guignol scenario to play out. The men who had dared to think would be brought to the execution site on Semenovsky Square, and after all the preparations for the execution squad to begin had been made, they would be pardoned. 

It turns out that Guignol is the main character in a French puppet show, and I recognized him as soon as I saw a picture (shown above.)  Guignol is famous for being amusing to children but his sharp wit makes him especially appealing to adults. In fact, he’s also become a generic noun, referring to an entertainment with sensational or horrifying dramatic intent, called a Grand Guignol. The etymology of the term is also amusing. It comes from the French  verb guigner, meaning “to wink,” no doubt referring to the character’s witty and acerbic side.

Guignol’s creator, Laurent Mourguet, was born in Lyon, France, into a family of silk weavers in 1769, just seven years before the French Revolution. When hard times fell on the silk trade he became a dentist, which in those days did not require any particular skill because it simply involved the pulling of teeth. To attract patients, he started setting up a puppet show in front of his dentist’s chair. By 1804 he had achieved such great  success that he was able to give up dentistry and become a professional puppeteer. His shows always included many references to the news of the day.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 29/16.


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