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As far as I can determine, French is the only European language that has turned the Capharnaum of the Latin New Testament into a word. This seems to have happened, at the latest, by the early 19th century. The first French dictionary to have an entry for capharnaüm is Émile Littré’s four-volume Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, respectfully referred to by the French as “la Littré” to this day. Its first edition, published between 1863 and 1872, defined the word as denoting “a place that contains many objects crammed confusedly together; a place of disorder and disarray.”
This is the sense in which it is used in Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” which appeared in 1857. In a scene in which its female protagonist, Emma Bovary, visits the local druggist Monsieur Homais, the latter refers to his workroom as his “Capharnaüm,” and the narrator comments, in the 1886 English translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling (who was, by the way, Karl Marx’s daughter):
It was thus the druggist called a small room under the leads [roof], full of the utensils and the goods of his trade. He often spent long hours there alone, labeling, decanting, and doing up again; and he looked upon it not as a simple store, but as a veritable sanctuary, whence there afterwards issued, elaborated by his hands, all sorts of pills, boluses, infusions, lotions, and potions that would bear far and wide his celebrity.
“Madame Bovary” was an immediate best-seller in France, given wide publicity by its author’s prosecution by the French government for indecency (he was acquitted), and its publication may have helped popularize the word. Yet, Flaubert was not the first well-known French writer to use it; it already occurs in Honoré Balzac’s 1833 novella “Ferragus,” where, in a description of Paris, Balzac referred to a kind of apartment building known as a cabajoutis, in which “all is discord, even the external decoration,” and wrote, in the 19th-century translation by Katherine Prescott Wormeley: “This significant name is given by the populace of Paris to houses which are built, as it were, piecemeal…. The cabajoutis is to Parisian architecture what the capharnaüm is to the apartment — a poke-hole, where the most heterogeneous articles are flung pell-mell.”
This comparison assumes that the reader is probably familiar with the word capharnaüm, and indicates that it was used fairly widely at least as far back as the 1830s. Why it is found in French alone, I don’t know, since the language of Catholic countries like France was not as influenced by Hebrew or Christian scripture as was that of Protestant countries like England, where the Bible was read more; nor have I been able to discover, prior to a late 19th-century painting by James Tissot, French pictorial representations of the scene at Capernaum, which was an occasional subject in European Christian art. As we say in Yiddish, gey veys.
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