A polyglot dictionary of fools

The jester is a complex character, emerging from or overlapping with a raggle-taggle round up of entertainers, advisers, hangers-on, pranksters, wits, ‘naturals’, musicians, poets, troubadours, tricksters, actors, mimes, folk fools, dwarfs and hunchbacks. Did we miss anyone?  

They existed in many places over long stretches of time. The words used to name them and their skills evolved over time and what might nowadays imply ‘actor’ may at an earlier time have meant ‘jester’. Or vice versa.  

In the main languages covered in Fools Are Everywhere, the lexicon of jesterdom is rich and to a degree messy. It may be equally so in other languages. Yet certain words start to crop up when you’re seeking examples across diverse cultures, and your first words in unknown languages are those which might uncover a new seam of materials to be mined; I soon learned to look for ‘skomorokhi’ in Russian bibliographic references, a word which will certainly be addressed here.

Aims and approaches

This then, aims to create a polyglot lexicon of fools and foolery. We don’t presume to nail definitive meanings, but rather to tease out their subtleties and highlight materials which do a deeper dive on a particular term.  

New additions – and new definitions of them – will be featured as we find interesting ideas and incisive explanations, and not in any particular order. The aim is to build a rich, nuanced source of rich, nuanced terms for fooldom.  

We will add examples as they turn up in the digging. 

First up – Chinese and Turkish terms

Fengjian 諷諫 - Chinese

A classical Chinese term for giving indirect advice, used in the context of jesters for the humorously indirect way they get their point across. Occasionally, the jian (諫) meaning ‘remonstrance’ or ‘to admonish or remonstrate with’ is combined with the you of ‘jester’ (優) to form something like ‘jester’s remonstrance’ (youjian 優諫).  

A corollary is jianguan (諫官) referring to a ‘remonstrating official’, one who loyally speaks out even if it might be dangerous or against their own interests.

We will add examples as we dig them out of the archives.   

In modern Chinese, feng means ‘to satirize or mock’ as well as to ‘chant or intone’.  It is used in the compound fengci (諷刺), ‘to mock or satirize’.  A fengcihua (諷刺畫) is a caricature or cartoon. 

Soytarı - Turkish

And by extension, saray soytarısı meaning ‘court jester’. Ezgi Dikici notes that it has a broader sweep than equivalent words in English: 

‘As opposed to the all-encompassing Turkish word soytarı, its English counterparts ‘jester,’ ‘buffoon,’ ‘clown,’ and ‘fool’ suggest shades of meaning.’

Source: Ezgi Dikici, Ayşe, ‘Imperfect Bodies, Perfect Companions: Dwarfs and mutes at the Ottoman court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, M.A. dissertation, Sabanci University, 2006, p. 4


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