Tuesday, April 15, 2014


I've been reading Walkabout by James Vance Marshall for the NYRB book group on GoodReads. The story is more  famously known in the version told in the Nicholas Roeg movie of the same name. In the introduction to the NYRB reprint of the book, Lee Seigel begins with this fact and goes on to say:

"...the movie is so strikingly different from Marshall’s affecting parable as to verge on travesty. It is a brilliant travesty, though, one that adds a curious urgency to the book’s very different, apparently old-fashioned pleasures, which, as it turns out, have a good deal to tell us now."

I was struck by this because, though I haven't seen the movie for many years, travesty wouldn't be one of the words I'd associate with it. And "brilliant travesty" sounded more to me like an oxymoron. Obviously, my sense of the word travesty as "a shocking desecration of the original" could do with some fine tuning. At the very least.


Well, my sense was more or less right, but I have now understood better how brilliance might play into it. A travesty is a burlesque of an original, more serious work. It comes into print around the 1670s, after the slightly earlier adjective, meaning to dress ridiculously or in parody of something. It was borrowed from the French travesti, or "dressed in disguise", back through the Italian travestire, to disguise, to the Latin transvestire--to clothe over. As you can see most clearly in the Latin, there is a link here with transvestite, which contains hints of all these things--clothing over, disguising, and burlesque--but that word actually came to us through the German Tranvestit.Though it has the same Latin roots, it was coined in about 1910.

As for brilliant travesty, two examples have come to light during my research. One much cited is the play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe, in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But brilliant in a different sense is Don Quixote, a travesty of the Medieval romances that the good knight is said to have read, but also superseding them. I found one article on satire that claims that travesty is to genre what parody is to a single work, but I wonder if it isn't a bit more elastic and slippery a term than that.

After all, a lot of things can happen when you go around in disguise.

That's actually James Cagney under the ass's head, believe it or not.


  1. Thanks for this. I was way, way wrong.

  2. You're welcome. And being wrong is sort of my stock and trade here.

  3. Loved learning all this, as usual. I keep coming across things I want to know. From you. Currently it's this: is there any connection between the word "caracol" (Spanish for snail or for spiral-shaped things) and the word "carousel"?

    1. Nope, dear Kathleen. Caracol comes from a pre-roman word with the sense of "shell", and carousel through French and Italian from the arabic "kuradj" (a game with toy horses for children).

    2. Hugo, you beat me to the punch, but it's probably just as well as I seem to be having a hard time getting to the punch this week.

  4. That's a good one, Kathleen. I am currently using Duolingo to review all my very rusty Spanish and although there is a considerable overlap with English words, I find myself wondering about Spanish etymologies quite frequently. I don't have etymological resources yet, but maybe this little project will inspire me to find some. I did learn that the Spanish word for sandwich, emparedado means something like between the walls, which is kind of cool, although I really learned it to remember what vowel goes where. Pared for wall is a good clue.

  5. When I get home, I'll see what Dr. Johnson had to say about travesty. His sequence of definitions for justice is interesting and, since once often hears travesty in the expression "travesty of justice" these days, I'll be eager to see in what sense travesty had been used in 1755 and before.

    You may know that you put up this post on the 259th anniversary of his Dictionary of the English Language.

  6. Well, I do now, Peter. Thanks. And yes, report back if you would on Johnson's sense of it. I do think "travesty of justice" is the phrase we are most likely to associate with the word these days, although it is perhaps more commonly spoken on crime shows than in actual courtrooms.