What’s a soubrette?

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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: soubrette…

Earlier this year I read the funny and interesting memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. An actor, comedian, writer, producer and musician, Martin came to public notice in the 1960s as a writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. (Side note: I just checked and learn that Tom Smothers died in 2010 and, Dick is still alive.) Of course I knew who Steve Martin was — I even knew he had considerable skill as a banjo player — but I didn’t know the ins and outs of his life as a performer.

Martin has considerable wise advice for writers even though he believes most people don’t take note of it, because it’s not what they expect to hear. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ ” For Martin this means working in a hard and focused manner and being relentlessly productive.

In addition to the very fine writing advice in his memoir,  Martin also gave me my word of the week: soubrette. Here is how he used it:

I appeared in The Bungling Burglar, performing the role of Hamilton Brainwood, a detective who was attracted to the provocatively named soubrette, Dimples Reardon.

I knew from the spelling that the word was French, but I hadn’t heard it before. It turns out it refers to a minor female role in a comedy, typically that of a pert maidservant. It originates from the French soubrette, which in turn comes from the Provençal soubrette meaning “affected,” or “conceited.” Before that, it comes from soubra meaning “to set aside,”from Latin superare meaning “to rise above,” or “to overcome.”

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