Today we associate chauvinism with sexism, the belief that men are superior to women, but this is a relatively recent development in the word’s history. The original sense of the word was superpatriotism, the blind, bellicose, and unswerving belief that one’s country is always in the right.
Chauvinism is an eponym, or a word formed from a person’s name, in this case a certain Nicholas Chauvin. No hard facts are known about Chauvin, and it is likely that he is a fictional character created to lampoon jingoistic patriots. The tales have it that he was born in 1780 in Rochefort, France and served ably and well in Napoleon’s army, even being decorated and granted a pension by the emperor himself. After the Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena in 1815, the name Chauvin began to be applied to those soldiers who idolized the former emperor and expressed a desire to return to the good old days of the empire. Most famously, the name was given to a ridiculous character in the Cogniard brothers’ 1831 play La Cocarde Tricolore (The Tricolor Cockade), who uttered the line, “je suis français, je suis Chauvin” (“I am French, I am Chauvin”).
Chauvinism and chauvinist crossed the channel and began to be used in English around 1870. As with the original French chauvinisme, the original English meaning was also extreme patriotism, first used in reference to France, as in the first recorded appearance in the Pall Mall Gazette of 17 September 1870:
What the French may have contributed to the progress of culture within the last twenty years is nothing in comparison to the dangers caused within the same space of time by Chauvinism.
But quickly the term began to be applied to superpatriots from other countries, not just France.
The association with sexism was in place by the 1930s. The Christian Science Monitor of 7 August 1935 has:
Another correspondent objected to the same comment [...] She inquired pointedly if in reviewing “America’s Young Women” we had suggested that it smacked of male chauvinism.
But male chauvinist may be a decade or more older, just unrecorded. There is this story from the New Yorker of 13 April 1940, but referring to an event that allegedly occurred some fifteen years earlier:
One night in the winter of 1924 a feminist from Greenwich Village put on trousers, a man’s topcoat, and a cap, stuck a cigar into her mouth, and entered McSorley’s. She bought an ale, drank it, removed her cap, and shook her long hair down on her shoulders. Then she called Bill a male chauvinist, yelled something about the equality of the sexes, and ran out.
While there are these older uses, male chauvinism came to the fore with second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s, often with the added epithet of pig. For example, Playboy magazine ran this article heading in May 1970:
Up Against the Wall Male Chauvinist Pig!
This association with sexism became so strong that often the male is simply dropped.
But chauvinism is not exclusively applied to sexists. It is also used in other contexts. In April 1955 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decried the attitudes of those who professed a belief that their nation was superior to others in the field of science:
Even though scientists did not go as far as to confuse scientific knowledge with national ideological doctrine, they did, nonetheless, often make it a point of patriotic honor to practice a certain kind of scientific nationalism and almost indeed a scientific chauvinism.
Astronomer Carl Sagan in 1973 described the belief that our species is superior as human chauvinism:
Contact with another intelligent species on a planet of some other star[...] may help us to cast off our [..] .human chauvinism.
A pretty successful eponym, considering it’s named after someone who never lived.
“chauvinism, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“male chauvinism, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2000.
[Discuss this post]
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton