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The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern EuropeEncounters with a Certain Something$
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Richard Scholar

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199274406

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199274406.001.0001

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A Modish Name

A Modish Name

Chapter:
(p.21) 1 A Modish Name
Source:
The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe
Author(s):

Richard Scholar (Contributor Webpage)

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199274406.003.0001

This chapter traces the word history of the je-ne-sais-quoi by examining its precursors and cognates in Latin and Romance languages, the various non-substantival French phrases to which it is closely related, and its rise to the height of linguistic fashion in 17th-century France and England. It adopts a ‘mentalist’ rather than a rigorously ‘nominalist’ approach to the je-ne-sais-quoi, using it as a lexical tracer of a particular movement of the mind. It sketches a semantic definition (or ‘ideal-type’) of the je-ne-sais-quoi, arguing that the word comes above all to designate a certain something experienced by individual human subjects that cannot be explained. The first surviving treatment of the je-ne-sais-quoi as a topic — by the lexicographer and writer of polite prose, Dominique Bouhours, in 1671 — is offered along with evidence from early modern dictionaries in support of this claim.

Keywords:   word history, linguistic fashion, mentalism, nominalism, lexical tracer, ideal-type, Dominique Bouhours, early modern dictionaries

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