Bigwigs, Louis XIV, and the French

John W. Pinkerton

I suppose because I'm pretty much a nonentity, after using the word “bigwig” when composing an email to a friend, I became interested in the origin of the word. I, of course, knew that it means “an important person” and my supposition about its origin was correct but not fleshed out.

Men wearing wigs began with Louis XIV, the Sun King in the early 17th Century.  He was prematurely bald and because there was no Rogaine or Hair Club for Men, he settled on a periwig which later just became “wig.”  Because if it was good enough for the King, it was widely accepted as the fashionable thing to place on one's head by the aristocracy.  Wigs were expensive so the purchase and maintenance of them was pretty well limited to folks of wealth. This trend was transplanted to England  where judges still wear wigs.  Well-to-do Colonial Americans also wore wigs.  That ain't George Washington's real hair in all of those famous portraits of him.  His hair was red.

Over time in France, men being men, the wigs got bigger and bigger to the point of being absurd and some even required scaffolding---thus “big wigs.”

We all know that “bigwig” means an important or influential person, but what are the synonyms: dignitary, eminence, leader, lion, nabob, notability, notable, personage, big-timer, heavyweight, somebody, someone, VIP, big shot, big wheel, muckamuck.

“Nabob” got my attention: it began life as the Hindi word “nawwab” which originally meant deputy governor in Mogul Empire which traveled to Portugal as “nababo” which became “nabob” in England which was applied to very rich men who made their fortunes in India.  Eventually, it just means a very important person.

“Muckamuck” also caught my attention.  It entered English from the Chinook, an Indian people who were the original inhabitants along the Columbia River in Oregon, and was shortened from “high muck-a-muck.”

The English language is a wonderful language because it absorbs words we like from all over the
world.  We just steal them and move forward.  The English speaking countries are quite different from the French in this regard which has an unusual abhorrence for foreign words.  They even have a committee, created by the Toubon Law, which creates “French” words for foreign words, particularly English words, which have become popular with the French.  “Walkman” became “baldadeur” and “label” became “etiquette.” Even imported cartoon programs got translated: Funky Cops became Des Flics dans la Vent and Totally Spies became Des Espions a Part Entiere.

Good luck on keeping your language pure, you frogs.  Oops!  I just used an ethnic slur which began life by applying to the Dutch because of their marshy land but was transferred to the French when they became enemies of England because of their penchant for eating frog legs.  I guess I should have referred to the French as Gallic purist---not French frogs.

The English language started stealing from the French with the Norman invasion.  We picked up beef, mutton, veal, pork, commence, disengage, and encounter and we've never looked back adding surrealism, impressionism, fauvism, cubism, symbolism, façade, niche, fuselage, grille, chateau, avant-garde and many, many more.

Thanks, Frenchy.

What was I talking about?  Oh, yeah.  Bigwigs…I ain't one.


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