Word Of The Week: January 9th, 2009

letterbI’ve had a debate with a friend over the word bizarre, specifically in the title of the show Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern. My friend thinks the word is inherently insulting, that it treats other cultures like circus freaks. I think, first of all, that Zimmern’s stated desire to understand and celebrate what’s different about other cultures is clearly positive, and also that calling something bizarre isn’t necessarily negative. It’s synonymous with unusual, and ultimately bizarreness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The debate got me wondering about the word itself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as

At variance with recognized ideas of taste, departing from ordinary style or usage; eccentric, extravagant, whimsical, strange, odd, fantastic.

That bit about “recognized ideas of taste” sounds a little fishy since taste is also in the eye of the beholder, right? As Ben Elton once said, “Wearing the right clothes only takes money, while wearing the wrong clothes takes initiative,” but that’s another story.

Where I have real trouble is sussing out the etymology of bizarre. The OED traces it back to the Spanish and Portuguese word bizarro, which means  “handsome, brave”. How’d it get from handsome and brave–and even, in early English usage, “soldier-like”, to, well, bizarre? The OED  doesn’t say a word about that, and I think it’s so bizarre I can’t even think of how it might have happened. There’s also Webster’s Word Histories, which claims that the word is used by Dante to mean “irascible”. And maybe there’s a clue there. The Italian Renaissance painter Salvator Rosa is described, in the book Born Under Saturn, as first going to Rome, penniless, “dressed in a bizzarro Spanish garb with the inevitable sword at his side.” Maybe a bizzarro was originally a Spanish soldier, maybe a mercenary. The “irascible” reputation may have come from a stereotype of the Spanish, so the word may have originally had a derogatory connotation, based on a false assumption about people of another culture. So maybe my friend really was on to something.