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10 of Voltaire's Favorite Bon Mots for Bastille Day

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It’s fitting to celebrate the writer Voltaire—born François-Marie Arouet—on Bastille Day, given that he himself was imprisoned there early in his writing career. As an Enlightenment philosopher and social critic, Voltaire helped champion revolutionary, humanist ideals such as freedom of religion and speech. That last in particular is a matter of pride for the French, whose love of debate goes hand in hand with their ideal of tolerance for opposing ideas. Though he didn’t actually say it, one of the most famous quotes attributed to Voltaire over the centuries was in fact a summary of his own writing: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

There are many delightful words or phrases we can actually attribute to Voltaire. Below is a list of some of Voltaire’s choicest bon mots, used to add punch to his persuasions and sting to his satire. Use them to add a little extra flair to your conversations this July 14—while you indulge in some crepes and wine, of course. 

1. INFÂME

The target of his entire literary career, infâme translates to “infamous,” a blanket term Voltaire used to refer to injustice in any form: words, ideas, even individuals or groups. His rallying cry, écrasez l’infâme, or “crush the infamous,” encapsulates his manner of bringing to light the controversial events of his day to be judged in the court of public opinion.

2. MŒURS

When Voltaire published Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations in 1756, it was an early attempt to codify his era’s understanding of cultural differences, values, and nuances in a kind of "universal history." It comes from the same source as the English term mores, encompassing the habits, traditions and conduct of a given group. In Voltaire’s work, it was often employed to explain the insipid ways a culture can perpetuate wrongs. 

3. DÉMONTRER

A literal translation, "to demonstrate," doesn’t quite convey the nuance with which Voltaire wrote démontrer. Fitting with Enlightenment rationalism, his use was a reference to deduction through reasoning, and could be personally directed at one making a claim, at once disproving and denouncing an opponent. It was a phrase which could reveal Voltaire’s vanity, as when, discussing his views on Newton’s laws in his Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire boasts “Quel philosophe pourra me démontrer?”—“What philosopher will prove me wrong?”

4. AVOUER

Meaning to admit or confess, this verb does have an archaic cognate in English: "to avow." Writing frequently in response to rival philosophers, such as Rousseau or Pope, Voltaire was always careful to concede points of agreement before lambasting his contemporary thinkers. In debate, it can be an effective means of converting an opposing viewpoint to one’s own way of thinking. 

5. NÉANMOINS

While conceding a point can be a smart tactic, it’s necessary to sharply and tactfully turn the conversation back to the original argument. Néanmoins, meaning "nevertheless," provides just that transition, and can often be found in Voltaire’s treatises and essays. 

6. FRIPONS

“As long as there are knaves and fools,” Voltaire wrote, “there will be religion.” He was never afraid to criticize the negative aspect of any authority, religious zealots included. Fripons are knaves, more literally translated as rogues: unscrupulous takers of advantage of others, as prevalent then as they are now. 

7. RIDICULE

In order to prove a point, Voltaire was always taking absurd ideas to their extreme end. In his book Zadig, Voltaire satirizes the philosophy of Leibniz. Zadig meets a hermit, who kills a young child because of a crime he is destined to commit in the future—despite being innocent now—with the message that there is “no evil from which good does not come,” a direct jab at Leibniz’s “the best of all possible worlds.” He epitomized his empirical stand when he wrote to Prince Frederick William of Prussia about both sides of the God or no-God debate: “Le doute n'est pas un état bien agréable, mais l'assurance est un état ridicule.” Meaning, doubt is not a comfortable state, but absolute certainty is absurd.

8. OSER

Another handy verb of Voltaire’s, oser means "to dare," and was often wielded to build absurdity and sarcasm into his satires. 

9. ORGUEIL

The term orgueil—pride—shows up again and again in Voltaire’s verse as well as his prose, ever a vice he deplored despite having a fair dose of it himself. He left us the axiom, “L'orgueil des petits consiste à parler toujours de soi; l'orgueil des grands est de n'en jamais parler.”  Meaning: Pride in the lowly is to talk always of themselves; in great people, it is never to do so.

10. VACARME UNIVERSEL

In his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique, mocking opponents of press freedom, Voltaire imagines cries of “un scandale, un vacarme universel dans votre petit coin de terre,” meaning a universal uproar whenever the devout take offense to an idea counter to their own. One of his most facetious phrases, it could certainly be used to satirize opponents as he had. Today, we can use it to describe the general atmosphere the legendary Voltaire was capable of producing, all with simply a pen and his mind. 

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25 Smart Synonyms You Should Be Using
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The word thesaurus literally means "repository" or "storehouse," and it ultimately comes from the same root as the word treasure. There's certainly some treasure to be unearthed in one, so in honor of Thesaurus Day, here are 25 smart-sounding synonyms to reboot your vocabulary.

1. INSTEAD OF "PAUNCHY," TRY USING "ABDOMINOUS."

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Derived from the same root as abdomen, if you're abdominous then you have a paunchy stomach, or a large, protruding belly.

2. INSTEAD OF "BAD LANGUAGE," TRY USING "BILLINGSGATE."

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Billingsgate was a famous fish market in central London. Thanks to the foul language of the people who worked there, the name eventually became synonymous with all coarse or abusive language.

3. INSTEAD OF "BAD IDEA," TRY USING "CACOETHES."

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Derived from the Greek "bad character," a cacoethes (that's "ka-ko-EE-theez”) is an insatiable desire to do something inadvisable.

4. INSTEAD OF "SKILLFUL," TRY USING "DAEDAL."

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Daedalus was the architect who built the Labyrinth in the ancient myth of the Minotaur, and, derived from his name, someone who is daedal is especially skilled or artful.

5. INSTEAD OF "CONFUSE," TRY USING "EMBRANGLE."

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A brangle is a squabble or a noisy argument, while to embrangle someone is to throw them into a quandary or to utterly perplex them. An embranglement, likewise, is a tricky, confusing situation.

6. INSTEAD OF "FEVERISH," TRY USING "FEBRILE."

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If you've come down with the flu you might be feeling febrile, or feverish. It might only be a febricula (that's a light or passing fever), but nevertheless, you might need a febrifuge (a drug that lowers your temperature).

7. INSTEAD OF "SLIPPERY," TRY USING "GLIDDERY."

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If something glidders, it freezes over, which makes something gliddery very slippery, as if covered in ice.

8. INSTEAD OF "GOOSE BUMPS," TRY USING "HORRIPILATION."

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That's the medical name for this curious phenomenon, which is also called gooseflesh, henflesh, or goose-pimpling.

9. INSTEAD OF "APPROPRIATE," TRY USING "IDONEOUS."

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It's a little on the old-fashioned side, but idoneous, derived from the Latin word idoneus, makes a perfectly, well, appropriate replacement for words like proper, fit, and suitable.

10. INSTEAD OF "BOASTING," TRY USING "JACTANCE."

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Derived from a Latin word meaning "to boast" or "speak out," jactance or jactancy is vainglorious boasting.

11. INSTEAD OF "RECOGNIZABLE," TRY USING "KENSPECKLE."

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A word from Scots dialect but with its roots in Scandinavia, kenspeck or kenspeckle means "easily recognizable" or "conspicuous."

12. INSTEAD OF "INDIFFERENT," TRY USING "LAODICEAN."

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Laodicea was a city in ancient Asia Minor. According to the biblical Book of Revelation, the people of Laodicea were known for their religious apathy, their fair-weather faith, and their lukewarm interest in the church—all of which prompted a pretty stern letter from St. John. As a result, a Laodicean is an apathetic, indifferent, or unconcerned person when it comes to religion.

13. INSTEAD OF "SMELLY," TRY USING "MEPHITIC."

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A mephitis is a noxious, foul-smelling fume emanating from inside the earth, and anything that smells as bad as that is mephitic. Case in point, skunks were known as "mephitic weasels" is the 19th century.

14. INSTEAD OF "MISER," TRY USING "NIPCHEESE."

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As well as being another name for a ship's purser (the steward in charge of the ship's accounts), a nipcheese is a mean, penny-pinching person. Feel free to also call your most miserly friend a nip-farthing, a shut-purse, a pinch-plum, or a sharp-nose.

15. INSTEAD OF "BEND," TRY USING "OBLIQUATE."

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Derived from the same root as the word oblique, if something obliquates then it turns or bends to one side.

16. INSTEAD OF "CONCISE," TRY USING "PAUCILOQUENT."

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Ironically, the thesaurus is full of weird and wonderful words for people who don't say very much. As well as pauciloquent, people who like to keep things brief can be laconic, synoptic, or breviloquent.

17. INSTEAD OF "QUINTESSENCE," TRY USING "QUIDDITY."

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Quintessence is already a fairly smart-sounding word, but you can up the stakes with quiddity: Derived from a Latin word meaning "who," the quiddity of something is the very essence or nature of something, or a distinctive feature or characteristic.

18. INSTEAD OF "CHEERFUL," TRY USING "RIANT."

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Derived via French from the Latin word for "laugh," if you're riant then you're cheerful or mirthful. A riant landscape or image, likewise, is one that makes you happy or is pleasurable to look at.

19. INSTEAD OF "TWITCHY," TRY USING "SACCADIC."

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A saccade is an involuntary twitch or movement of the eye—and, figuratively, that makes someone who is saccadic characteristically fidgety, twitchy, or restless.

20. INSTEAD OF "EQUIVOCATE," TRY USING "TERGIVERSATE."

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To tergiversate literally means "to turn your back on" something, but more loosely, it means to dodge a question or issue, or to avoid a straightforward explanation.

21. INSTEAD OF "HOWL," TRY USING "ULULATE."

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Probably originally meant to be onomatopoeic, ululation is a howling sound like that made by wolves. More figuratively, to ululate can be used to mean "to bewail" or "lament."

22. INSTEAD OF "PREDICT," TRY USING "VATICINATE."

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Derived from the Latin word for a soothsayer or seer, to vaticinate is to prophesize or predict something.

23. INSTEAD OF "UNLUCKY," TRY USING "WANCHANCY."

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Wanchance is an old Scots dialect word for misfortune. Derived from that, the adjective wanchancy has fallen into more widespread use to mean "unlucky," "ill-fated," or in some contexts, "uncanny" or "eerily coincidental."

24. INSTEAD OF "LAST NIGHT," TRY USING "YESTERNIGHT."

There are more yester– words in the dictionary than just yesterday. As well as yesternight, there's yesterweek, yestereve, and yestermorn.

25. INSTEAD OF "CRITICISM," TRY USING "ZOILISM."

Zoilus was one of the harshest critics of the ancient Greek writer Homer, and he was known for his scathing, nit-picking attacks on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Derived from him, a zoilist is an overbearingly harsh critic, while unduly harsh criticism is zoilism.

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Love Hygge? Meet Lagom, Your New Favorite Scandinavian Philosophy
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The Danish concept of hygge is all about indulging in simple pleasures during the cold, dark winter months. In Sweden, people take a different approach to living their best lives: They focus on lagom, an idea that roughly translates to “not too much, not too little, just the right amount.”

As Condé Nast Traveler reports, lagom can be found everywhere in Swedish culture. Swedes might use it to describe the strength of their coffee or slip it into conversation with sayings like lagom är bäst (“lagom is best”). But you don't need to speak Swedish to embrace the concept. Condé Nast Traveler has a few tips for how to incorporate lagom into your own life no matter how far from Scandinavia you live.

One obvious place to practice lagom is in the home. Get rid of the clutter you haven’t used in years and hold onto items with practical value. But because lagom is all about balance, you should leave room in your house for objects with special aesthetic or sentimental value as well.

Lagom also has a place at work. If you’re someone who works non-stop from 9 to 5, remember to schedule time for breaks and really disconnect from your job during those times. It may feel like slacking off, but your work performance will actually benefit.

Finally, one of the most important ways Swedes express lagom is through day-to-day personal interactions. If you live according to the lagom philosophy, dominating the conversation isn’t a priority. Giving others room to speak, and even allowing comfortable silences to form, is more important.

Looking for another untranslatable European life philosophy to adopt this winter? In Scotland, Còsagach is how people stay cozy.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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