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Foreign Language Borrowings

Laying aside the contents of his poetry, Whitman once declared to Horace Traubel: "I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment" (Primer viii). Indeed he loved words for their own sake and drew up lists of them. "Great is language," he exclaimed in 1855; "it is the mightiest of the sciences," and he added, "Great is the English speech...What speech is so great as the English?" ("Great Are the Myths," section 3). What he appreciated above all was that it had assimilated words from every language, rejecting none. The English language, Whitman said, is "[a]n enormous treasure-house, or range of treasure houses, arsenals, granary, chock full with so many contributions...from Spaniards, Italians and the French" (Primer 30). He wanted this process of assimilation to go on in America: "In a little while, in the United States, the English language, enriched with contributions from all languages, old and new, will be spoken by a hundred millions of people" (Primer 2). Though he knew no other language than English and never visited a foreign country before his trip to Canada in 1880, he loved to pick up foreign words and parade them in his journalistic writings from 1848 on, i.e., from his stay in Louisiana on.

It was there that Whitman picked up French words and started using them in the New Orleans Daily Crescent for the sake of local color: "sang-froid," "chaqu'un à son gré" (for "chacun à son gré"), "sans culottes" (which he discussed humorously), "chapeau blanc," "marchande de fleurs," "tout à fait," "jolie grisette," "coiffeur," "distingué," "morceau of bijouterie" (a curious mongrel), "recherché," "embonpoint." It was there, too, that he found the word "Libertad" on Mexican coins (see "Turn O Libertad") and heard the word "camarada," which he thought was "camerado" under the influence of Walter Scott's novels. He was to use some of these words and many others in his writings when he returned to New York. There is already a sprinkling of French words in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, from "insouciance" in the Preface and "Faces," to "embouchure" in "Song of Myself," or "douceur" and "cache" in "The Sleepers." Whitman made increasing use of such borrowings in the later editions. He uses "délicatesse," for example, in "Spirit That Form'd This Scene," "Song of the Broad-Axe," "Not Youth Pertains to Me," and "By Blue Ontario's Shore," section 4 (he apparently liked the expressive sound of the word since he used it four times and dropped the accent the better to acclimatize it). The word "soirée" appears in "City of Orgies" and "aplomb" in "Song at Sunset" and "Me Imperturbe."

Another of Whitman's favorite borrowings was "ennui," which appears in "Song of Joys," "Ah Poverties, Wincings, and Sullen Retreats," and "As I Sit Writing Here." It becomes "ennuyés" in "The Sleepers." To it must be added "complaisance" in "A Song for Occupations," "coterie" in "Not Youth Pertains to Me," and "éclat" in "As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days." He misspelled "rondeur" as "rondure," which probably corresponded to his pronunciation. He loved the word which beautifully suggested the totality of the earth. He used it in "Passage to India," "Out of the Rolling Ocean," and "Song of the Exposition." For the same reason, he loved "ensemble," which evoked the immensity and the unity of the universe. "I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble," he promised in "Starting from Paumanok" (section 12). He used it also in "Laws for Creations," "Song of the Exposition," "Song of the Universal," "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" (section 6), and "By That Long Scan of Waves." (He needed such words to express his cosmic sense and suggest the infinity of space and time. He thus often resorted to the Greek work "Kosmos," which he deliberately spelt with a "k." "Kosmos" in Greek means order, harmony, beauty, and the universe.) "Feuillage" was particularly appropriate in a book entitled Leaves of Grass, and it appears even in the title of a poem, "Our Old Feuillage," and several times in the poem itself as well as in "Apostroph" and "Thoughts [Of these years...]" (section 2).

Another key word was "rapport," which is synonymous with spiritual or mystical connection as in "I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them," in "Salut au Monde!" (section 13), whose title is entirely in French. "Rapport" also occurs in "Cabin'd Ships at Sea," "By Blue Ontario's Shore" (section 3), "To Him That was Crucified," "Italian Music in Dakota," "The Sobbing of the Bells," "As I Draw to a Close," "You Tides with Ceaseless Swell," and "With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea." "Mélange" also provided Whitman with the word he needed to give a name to the mystical fusion and the cosmic unity in which he believed: "Melange mine own, the unseen and the seen" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 10). He liked the word "débris" (which he wrote like "melange" without an acute accent) since human activities, war in particular, leave many broken things for which there is no convenient word in English. He used it in "Song of Myself" (section 33), "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," "Spain 1873–74," "Ashes of Soldiers," "A Voice from Death," and the 1860 Leaves poem "Debris." He also resorted to French military terms to describe Civil War scenes, especially in Specimen Days: "militaires," "sortie," and "reconnaissance" (which becomes "reconnoissance" in "A Song for Occupations" [section 3] and is then almost meaningless).

What chiefly drew Whitman to the French language was his sympathy for France, which he regarded as the champion of democracy in Europe, in the vanguard of revolutionary movements in 1789, 1830, and 1848. French was therefore in his eyes the language of popular dynamism. That is why he again and again called "Allons!" when he invited his reader to follow him on the open road of the future "through struggles and wars"; the word was a "call of battle" ("Song of the Open Road," section 14). He naturally borrowed the word "révolutionnaire," but spelled it without an accent and with one "n" only. He celebrated the French revolutionary poets like Béranger, whom he admired. He called them "chansonniers" ("France, The 18th Year of these States"). He considered himself one of them (see "The Centenarian's Story"). It was from French that he borrowed the word "en-masse." French was also for him the language of love. He spoke of his "amie" and "amies" in "Song of Myself." He addressed democracy as "ma femme" ("For You O Democracy," "France, The 18th Year of these States," and "Starting from Paumanok").

French words are so numerous in Leaves of Grass that it is difficult to draw up an exhaustive list. He must have borrowed them from many sources, for he uses an archaic form of "répondez" as the title of "Respondez!," while "trottoirs" (used in "Mannahatta," "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun," and "You Felons on Trial in Courts") as well as "ateliers" ("Eidólons"), "detour" ("Song of the Universal"), "embouchure" ("Song of Myself" and "By Blue Ontario's Shore"), and "soiree" (without an accent; "City of Orgies" and "Faces") must have been memories of his stay in New Orleans. But where did he find "accoucheur" ("Song of Myself"), "eleve" ("To a Western Boy"), "emigré" ("Song of the Exposition"), "exaltè" (with a grave instead of an acute accent; "Eidólons" and "To the East and to the West"), and "complaisance" ("A Song for Occupations")? He probably found such words in the magazines he read assiduously when he was a journalist in Brooklyn and New York. He picked a few in particular from the society reports of the New York Aurora in which French phrases were frequently used to give them ton. He was on the staff of the Aurora in 1842.

Since Whitman actually knew no French except a number of nouns and adjectives, he was bound to make mistakes—in spelling in particular. He thus spelt "savan" and "habitan" without the final "t," because he incorrectly deduced these forms from the then current plurals "savans" and "habitans." He treated "chef-d'oeuvre" in the plural as if it were an English compound word, adding an "s" to "oeuvre" instead of "chef" ("Song of the Broad-Axe"). He also at times used some words inappropriately. He seems not to have grasped the exact meaning of "résumé" (which means "summary"), as when he exclaimed, "How plenteous! how spiritual! how resumé!" (without an accent on the first "e") in "Night on the Prairies," though he used it correctly in other contexts, e.g. "A Carol Closing Sixty-Nine." In the same way, "debouché" (with no accent on the first "e") is absolutely meaningless in the line, "On for your time, ye furious debouché" ("Last of Ebb, and Daylight Waning"). Whitman probably confused it with "debouching." The phrase "in arriere" (with no grave accent on the first "e"; "Starting from Paumanok" and "Our Old Feuillage") does not exist in French. The French phrase is "en arrière." His use of "luminé" in "As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days" and "Apostroph" is just as baffling. One even wonders what language the word belongs to. His description of God as a "reservoir" in "Passage to India" is quite unexpected and extremely bold. In the same poem, he even took liberties with the French language and coined the verb "eclaircise" from the French "éclaircir," a form which is neither French nor English.

Besides French and Spanish words, Whitman also resorted to Italian words which he picked up when he attended Italian operas in Manhattan. In "Proud Music of the Storm," after quoting hymn titles in German (Martin Luther's "Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott") and in Latin (Antonio Rossini's "Stabat Mater Dolorosa," "Agnus Dei," and "Gloria in Excelsis"), he accumulated Italian terms: "maestros" (it should be "maestri"), "soprani," "tenori," "bassi," "cantabile," "Paradiso," and "Italia." He also used "bravuras" when speaking of birds in "Song of Myself" and "scenas" (with English plurals), "tutti" in "That Music Always Round Me," and "finalè" in "The Base of All Metaphysics," "Song at Sunset," and "Now Finalè to the Shore." For no special reason, he preferred "ambulanza" to the banal "ambulance" in "Song of Myself" (section 33). In "Starting from Paumanok," he introduced himself in Italian as no "dolce affettuoso" (section 15).

Whitman borrowed words from modern languages, but also from old Greek ("eidōlon," which means "image, simulacrum") and from Latin, though he knew neither language. He nonetheless had access to the word "plenum" and to "afflatus," which he must have found in some magazine to mean "inspiration" in the most literal sense of the term ("Song of Myself," section 24).

No other American writer of his time made so many language borrowings as Whitman. He did so despite his great admiration for the English language and his rejection (in principle) of European influences. Yet his generous adoption of foreign words was consonant with his desire to incorporate all races and address all nations—and also with his love of rhetoric and high-sounding words.

Whitman's interest in foreign words appears not only in his published works, but also in a book on which he collaborated, but whose coauthorship he never recognized: Rambles Among Words, published under the name of his friend William Swinton in 1859. In the fifth volume of Whitman's Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Edward Grier has reprinted the parts of this book which are most likely to have been written by Whitman (5:1624–1662). This includes in particular a list of French words, most of which were used in Leaves of Grass. He sometimes comments on them interestingly. He thus specifies that "debris" is "a symbolism from geology" and that "naïve" and "naïvety" are "most desirable words, with the French elusive charm and implying a combination of the ingenuous, candid, winning." As for "ensemble," it is "a noble word with immense vista" (Notebooks 5:1658–1660).

Whitman also loved American Indian words and commented on them lyrically in An American Primer: "All aboriginal names sound good. I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names" (18). But this is another subject.

For more precise references to the foreign words listed in this article, consult Edwin Harold Eby's concordance.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Eby, Edwin Harold, ed. A Concordance of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Selected Prose Writings. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1955.

Faner, Robert D. Walt Whitman & Opera. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1951.

Leonard, Douglas. "The Art of Walt Whitman's French in 'Song of Myself.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 3.4 (1986): 24–27.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Pound, Louise. Selected Writings. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1949.

____. "Walt Whitman and the French Language." American Speech 1 (1926): 421–430.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Ed. Horace Traubel. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1904.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora. Ed. Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1950.

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