Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Barbarous Massachusetts

“Do you know,” Madame Roland commented in a letter written about 1790, “that Massachusetts is very barbarous name?”

Van Wyck Brooks, whose reputation as a chronicler of New England literature has rather diminished in the several decades since he published his books on 19th and early 20th century greats, recounts Mme. Roland’s charge in his “From a Writer’s Notebook” (EP Dutton & Co, Inc., NY, 1958).

Mme. Roland continued her tirade, “A man of fashion was never known to utter such a word (Massachusetts!) when saying soft things to the fair sex…I have heard of a lady who was so shocked at the sound of Transylvania, which was quite new to her, that she desired the impertinent speaker to leave the room.”

To be sure, Mme. Roland, who, despite her support of the French Revolution, was nevertheless carted off to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, has a more famous quote attributed to her: “Oh, liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”

Still, my sentimental favorite is the one about Massachusetts being a barbarous name. Evidently, she was not alone in her opinion.

According to Mr. Brooks, literary scholar Léon Bazalgette “could not endure the word (Massachusetts!), but …was obliged to use it, called it “le Mass.”

2 comments:

John Hayes said...

Now that's a poser! Wonderful post.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, John. Massachusetts is supposed to mean blue hills. I wonder, had Mme. Roland and M. Bazalgette known that, would it have made any difference? Maybe not.