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DEVIL AND DIABOLICAL are perfect additions to the SimanaitisSays series of Etymology for our Times, what with the Trump administration’s Wall hostage program of children. The words’ origins trace to mankind’s earliest languages, thus confirming, alas, that our era is not unique in having people performing evil acts. As something of a relief, before we’re done here today, there’s celebration of a classic French movie.
Merriam-Webster defines the word diabolical as “of, relating to, or characteristic of the devil.” Which in turn leads us to its definition of devil: “the personal supreme spirit of evil often represented in Christian belief as the tempter of humankind, the leader of all apostate angels, and the ruler of hell.”
M-W also includes the less spiritual definition of an “extremely wicked person” and even the mischievous “person of notable energy, recklessness, and dashing spirit,” as in “those kids are little devils today.”
The particular diabolical sorts I have in mind are anything but this last characterization. They are personifications of evil, well worthy of eventual residency in Dante’s Inferno.
Both diabolical and devil trace back to Latin diabolus, which descends from Greek διαβολoς, diabolos, originally meaning “slanderous” or “accusing falsely.” The word likely has even an earlier kin in Sanskrit.
M-H cites a first known English use of devil before the 12th century, and thus in Middle English, that hodge-podge of Old English and the Norman French brought over with William the Conquerer’s 1066 victory at Hastings. In Middle English/Middle French, diabolical was rendered deabolik/diabolique, respectively. We’ve cleaned up English spelling a bit, though the French word exists to this day.
The trusty Oxford English Dictionary devotes more than four of its microprinted pages to the prince of hell. Among devilish citations is an 18th-century one: “Devil’s Books.” Today, most of us call them playing cards.
One of the OED’s three microprinted “diabolic” pages has a quote, c. 1533, from John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. He laments Tudor maliciousness in noting, “To vse the said Elizabeth, as a diabolike instrument, to stirre, moue, and provoke the people of the realme.” Elizabeth, unwanted infant of Henry VIII, was being christened at the time.
Who would have thought Tudor maliciousness still exists in today’s world?
On a more recent note, maybe you remember Diabolique? This 1955 French movie is more than just an art-house flick of interminable dripping-leaf shots. It’s a psychological murder mystery that has aged very well.
Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot (the director’s wife at the time) portray mistress and wife, respectively, of a second-rate boarding school headmaster played by Paul Meurisse. The guy’s tyrannical behavior unites the two women in a plot to sedate him, drown him in a bathtub, and dispose of the corpse in the school’s neglected swimming pool.
Complications arise, specifically when the body in the swimming pool doesn’t. Indeed, the body disappears.
Later, the “dead” guy’s presence is felt and, in fact, seen peering out of a window in a school photograph.
Ominous music here (by George Van Parys, French composer influenced by Les Six).
Charles Vanel portrays a retired policeman, now a private detective who recognizes a complot diabolique when he sees it.
I’ll not give away the denouement, but suffice to say its intensity has remained with me for more than six decades. I’m comforted that it’s only a very fine movie, not a horror of real life. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018