Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I was watching one of the news shows recently, probably some news on Iraq, unfortunately, when this word popped to the surface of consciousness. I've since looked into it a little, which isn't my typical way of proceeding here, but I can remember that I thought, possibly influenced by finding it in a sentence about the Middle East, that it would have some exotic Near Eastern origin. Perhaps I was making some unconscious link to words like scimitar and dervish.

I also really had no idea what a skirmish was other than knowing it was a kind of fight. So let's get that out of the way first.

The caption reads: A skirmish near Creen Creek, Queensland

A skirmish is a minor battle. I don't know that it is defined more specifically than that. It is either minor or brief or unpremeditated. In a non-military sense, it can be any sort of clash, and is a  synonym for fracas. I was going to say that a skirmish would not be between just two people, but I find that none other than Shakespeare does me in on that score. In Much Ado About Nothing, he has Leonato say:

"There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her [Beatrice]; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them."

Of course, both Benedick and Beatrice each have a whole army of wit in their heads, so maybe this doesn't prove me entirely wrong.

Sam Waterston--still my favorite Benedick

So where does it come from?

Well, let's get to the word that influenced it first. This is the Middle English skirmysshen, which means "to brandish a weapon". It comes from the French, the Old French eskirmiss-, which is the stem of the word eskimir, "to fence". I think you get the idea. Touche!

But let's get back to the first meaning, because I found this fascinating. Originally, it comes from the Old French escaramouche, which means, well, skirmish, and is taken from the Italian scaramuccia and further back from some sort of hypothesized German root. But Online Etymology Dictionary, you had me at escaramouche. Scaramouche! Okay, maybe I've never read the 1921 novel, but I know my dad did. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it. Sometimes Wikipedia is often a bit dry, but this is pretty good:

A romantic adventure, Scaramouche tells the story of a young lawyer during the French Revolution. In the course of his adventures he becomes an actor portraying "Scaramouche" (a roguish buffoon character in the commedia dell'arte). He also becomes a revolutionary, politician, and fencing-master, confounding his enemies with his powerful orations and swordsmanship. He is forced by circumstances to change sides several times. The book also depicts his transformation from cynic to idealist.

The three-part novel opens with the memorable line: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." This line was to become Sabatini's epitaph, on his gravestone in Adelboden, Switzerland.

Okay, so the swashbuckling swordsman part of his persona makes sense. But in fact, his name doesn't come from that aspect of his many-sided personality. It comes from a set of stock characters of Italian
commedia dell'arte. He only becomes a swashbuckler later. Here's one way Scarramucia is traditionally represented:

But here is another:

photo from

 I know which version of Scarramucia I'd want to see appear under my window.

My dad knew Scaramouche through Sabatini. But generations of Brits  know of him in a different guise. Clearly a resilient individual, he leapt the English channel to find a new home in the puppet shows of Punch and Judy. Which is almost certainly where Freddy Mercury found him.

"Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?"

(At about three minutes in.)



  1. Seana

    DId you ever see the movie? Janet Leigh is terrific but Stewart Granger is miscast. You needed an Errol Flynn or a Leslie Howard for that role - someone a bit skinnier and livelier. Granger has his charms but he's too chunky and slow as a swashbuckler I reckon

  2. If I have seen it, I did not link it in my mind to its name. There seem to have been more than a few swashbuckling movies on TV in my youth. There are a couple of movie versions, one from 1923. It looks like Amazon may have that one, so I may give it a go.

    I agree that Stewart Granger doesn't seem right for this role. It's fun to think about who might fit the bill in a modern day version.

  3. Thanks for the Freddy. I recently had an embarrassing moment when I confused frass with fracas.

  4. Well at least you know what frass is, which is more than I can say.

    I was probably not quite in the right age group for Mr. Mercury when he blazed to glory, though of course I knew some of the songs. This one seems full of adumbrations.

  5. Oh, what a joy to follow these explanations and discoveries! Thank you again for your wit and your words.

  6. Thanks, Kathleen. I'm sure not everyone appreciates the rambling nature of these posts, but I'm glad you do.

  7. You mean an adumbration isn't when a parent gets a second mortgage just to pay a daughter's princess pony birthday party?

  8. Well, no, but there should be an adumbration of the future in that case too...

  9. A wonderful post which has brought me back to my childhood. I loved the film and shall now set out to try to find it on DVD.

    Many thanks, Seana.

  10. Thanks, Maria. I am going to get the movie into my Netfllix queue as well.