So Gordon Brown is at the centre of a controversy for calling a retired resident of Rochdale a “bigot” after she questioned his immigration policy. The leader of the Labour party chose a very interesting word:

1590s, from Fr. bigot (12c.), in O.Fr. “sanctimonious;” supposedly a derogatory name for Normans, the old theory (not universally accepted) being that it springs from their frequent use of O.E. oath bi God. Plausible, since the Eng. were known as goddamns in Joan of Arc’s France, and during World War I Americans serving in France were said to be known as les sommobiches (son of a bitch). But the earliest French use of the word (12c.) is as the name of a people apparently in southern Gaul (which led to the now-doubtful, on phonetic grounds, theory that the word comes from Visigoth). Sp. bigote “mustache” also has been proposed as a source, though the sense is not adequately explained. The earliest English sense is of “religious hypocrite,” especially a female one, and may have been influenced by Beguine. Sense extended 1680s to other than religious opinions.


This term originally referred to a religious hypocrite, but its use has been extended and designates a fanatical adherent or believer; a person characterised by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs (Oxford English Dictionary). In French, I would translate it by sectaire.
Let’s hope that the party leaders will be able to put the record straight on immigration in the UK during tonight’s debate.

By |2016-10-18T15:48:53+00:00April 29th, 2010|Words|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Marian Dougan April 29, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Fascinating! I love the French use of “goddamns” and “sommobiches”. And I finally discovered where Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” comes from.

  2. Matthew Bennett May 1, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I’ve been wondering about this in Spanish since Wednesday too. The standard translation is just ‘intolerante’ which of course would also be ‘intolerant’ in English but it doesn’t fit in my mind as it should.
    Thinking along the same lines as your “obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs ” I was wondering about ‘facha’ – which was originally applied to fascists or right-wing supporters of the Franco dictatorship.
    In conversations nowadays though, it’s often used as something much closer to the English ‘bigot’ than ‘intolerante’. You rarely (never) hear someone call another person ‘intolerante’ as a noun, but quite often in heated debates you’ll hear ‘es un facha’ – and it normally refers to peoples intolerance, not their extreme right-wing political beliefs.

  3. Adrian Morgan May 2, 2010 at 9:44 am

    This is a particularly interesting etymology, although I have to wonder why female religious hypocrites merit special mention.
    Whenever I’ve heard someone try to define “bigot”, it has been defined as one who hates others for no better reason than because they are different from one’s self (or more succinctly: one who is intolerant towards people who are different). Does that definition work for or against the choice of “sectaire” as a translation?

  4. céline May 2, 2010 at 10:05 am

    @Matthew & @Adrian: “sectaire” is the closest way I could find to translate the concept, but it is an adjective. The best noun I can think of is “fanatique”, but it has an intensity that makes it an overtranslation.

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