Le billet doux ‘The Love Letter’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, oil on canvas, circa 1770 CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Literally ‘sweet note’ in French, billet-doux means ‘love letter’ in English. In French, billet doux was once a phrase odorous with rococo luxe, like the voluptuous coquette afroth in laced sleeves perched at her escritoire. With flowers and a note from her lover freshly arrived, milady turns, naughty imp, to cast a beckoning smile from Fragonard’s sumptuous apartment in the long-ago Paris of Louis XV.
Nowadays billet-doux bears the mocking taint of satire or is starkly archaic. Billet-doux mopes under an old-fashioned sense, like faded dentelle de Chantilly from a once-fresh jabot, now only yellowed lace folded away in a great-grandmother’s rosewood coffer, an accessory never to be reworn.
But, in alert English expository prose (see modern magazine and newspaper citations below) billet-doux as a printed word is still popular. Even in French however, the phrase has been replaced by the literal, dowdy and prosaic lettre d’amour. When billet doux first appeared in French print in 1680 CE it already had synonyms like billet galant and billet amoureux.
Is the hyphen in billet-doux correct? It is the customary English form. There is no hyphen in the phrase in French.
Down the Etymological Pathway
Billet-doux’s adjective is doux, douce, the French word for sweet, from Latin dulcis ‘sweet.’ Billet’s ancestor in Old French is billette (1389 CE) which was a letter of safe conduct through strange territory. Billette stems from a medieval Latin word billia attested by 1198 CE that meant ‘important short document on parchment,’ a possible relative of bulletta, diminutive of bulla Latin ‘anything globular or spherical like a bubble, a ball, a knob, a stud. Papal bulls or edicts were so named because a round lead seal, bulla, was affixed to the bottom of the parchment page. In England bulla was a Latin translation of the phrase “The King’s seal.”
It appears that the name of the round seal at the bottom of the parchment came to stand for the whole parchment or paper itself, and that bulla underwent dialectical vowel gradation to billia and then was made diminutive as billette, here the diminutive form means not so much ‘physically smaller’ as ‘less important,’ in the sense that a short love note is less important than a papal pronouncement. Some atheists would disagree.
Synecdoche, Why Don’t You Take All of Me?
This common verbal development in languages where part of something eventually names the whole thing (e.g. the bulla seal names the whole document as a papal bull) has a fancy name as a figure of speech in rhetoric, synecdoche (sin-NEC-do-kee). The classical Greek was συνεκδοχή ‘understanding (doche) something extra (ek-)at the same time (syn-).’ Syn, of course, is a Greek preposition and a prefix that means literally ‘with, together with, accompanied by.’
In the catalogue of Latin rhetorical terms, synecdoche had two categories: pars pro toto where a small part names the whole thing and the less common totum pro parte where a whole thing name refers only to a part of the whole thing.
Bulletin Just Arrived like a Bullet!
Bulletin meaning ‘a brief report of an event, often of official issue’ is from French bulletin whose formal analysis finds it to be a double diminutive of boule ‘ball.’ As early as 1299 CE in French, bulletin signified the seal on a message, often a warm ball of wax pressed flat by a metal seal and used to conclude or to fasten shut an important short document.
A bullet was also a small ball, of lead, from Middle French boulette ‘small missile’ and boulet’ cannonball,’ both diminutives of boule ball.
What about Soldiers’ Billet?
How does billeting soldiers in a village inn during a war relate to a love letter? Because the root meaning of billet in French is ‘short note,’ then ‘ticket’ as in billet d’avion ‘airplane ticket’ or billet aller-retour ‘roundtrip or return ticket.’ Originally un billet de logement ‘lodging ticket’ was the ticket or little note assigning quarters to soldiers looking for a night’s rest and presented to the owner of the village house, stating that the owner must let soldiers eat and sleep in his house for whatever duration the army ordered.
A Billet-doux for the Euromarket
More borrowers are becoming enamoured with the growing Euro medium-term note market. Will they be happy if the commission cartel crumbles?
—headline and deck from The Economist, October 1989
Revelations of romantic imbroglio at court
By Dalya Alberge
A SECRET letter from a loyal servant telling of his employer’s passion for marriage into Britain’s Royal Family is revealed in The Times today.
The royal go-between complains of a monarch’s anger at gossip of a possible love match and declares he would rather “drain a glass of poison” than upset her.
But the billet doux is not about Paul Burrell, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Queen, but about a royal affair from half a millennium ago.
—The Sunday Times, November 2002
Young lovers in Victorian England, forbidden to express their affection in public and fearful that strict parents would intercept their billets-doux, sent coded messages through the personal columns in newspapers.
— Susan Adams, “I've got a secret,” Forbes, September 20, 1999
And, if you were to send a poulet to a fine woman, in such a hand, she would think that it really came from the poulailler; which, by the bye, is the etymology of the word poulet; for Henry the Fourth of France used to send billets-doux to his mistresses by his poulailler, under pretense of sending them chickens; which gave the name of poulets to those short, but expressive manuscripts.
— Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, 1746 CE
[ poulet, French ‘chicken’, historical sense ‘short note’; poulailler French ‘hen house,’ earlier ‘poulterer, poultry farmer’ ]
His Officers and Soldiers; who were by those Billets dispersed into Quarters in several Parts of the Town.
— London Gazette No. 6152/3, 1723 CE
With tender billets-doux he lights the pyre,
— Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, (II, 40-45), 1712 CE
The Billet-Doux, Aubrey Beardsley, 1895-96 CE, illustrated edition of The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.
Comparison is odious. Among languages it is also somewhat silly. Nevertheless, in the verbal stakes for words meaning ‘love letter,’ as far as euphony and “sonic appropriateness” goes, French wins hands down with billet doux, especially compared with the creepy German Liebesbrief, the utilitarian Russian любовное письмо [ lyoobovnoi pismuh ] ‘amorous written note,’ and the merely serviceable Italian lettera d’amore. Spanish borrows the French word and gives us il billete amoroso. Swedish kärleksbrev sounds like it might slice open your fingers while you read it!
So, having perused the billet-doux, let us open the mahogany drawer of the Louis Quatorze escritoire, store the letter away, and tiptoe to a velvet-pillowed settee, thereupon to swoon.
Lady Receiving a Love Letter, engraving, circa 1700 CE, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Cabinet des Estampes), Paris
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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