Writing up my thoughts about the first season of NCIS gave me a good post topic for today: bête noire.
I probably first came into contact with the phrase when flipping through my brother’s albums in the late 80s. If anyone told me what it meant then, I don’t remember, but I wouldn’t have understood its connection to post-glam rock anyway.
Here’s the thing: literally, a bête noire is a “black beast.” According to my French dictionary, it’s also the common term for a wild boar. In the figurative sense, according to the same source, it’s the thing that someone hates most in the world. In my Oxford American, it’s “a person or thing that one particularly dislikes.” An online French-English dictionary says “pet peeve.” None of these are the same thing, unless you’re a really sarcastic teenager.
Confounding matters, the episode of NCIS that brought this on titled itself “Bête Noire” and within the show defined it as “nightmare” which is just wrong. One could argue that they were using the secondary definition of the term, but it’s clear from the context that they meant “frightening dream.”
So, what’s a person to make out of all these varying interpretations? First: don’t believe everything you hear on TV, even on the former Tiffany Network, which is too bad since TV is actually a great way to pick up random trivia. Second, the nuance of some words or phrases is just too subtle or culturally specific to find a good equivalent in another language.
Here’s a fact you can file away though: jabalí is the Spanish word for “wild boar.” I first heard about them on the news when there had been a string of sightings. It turns out that in mountainous regions of the Iberian Peninsula like Catalunya, boars will try to break into people’s garages, run out in the road, attack small animals, etc. I thought it was a joke: wild pigs chasing people off their own property seemed too silly. Then I thought of deer and moose crossings and how those things can total a car and still keep running and I found it less funny. The Catalans deal with surplus population the only way they know how: they make a special sausage out of them. It’s mighty tasty.