minion

The archvillain looks archly and villainously over his dominion, his assembled army like so many huddled masses, here and there a spear or torch or tall head jutting above the rest. It is an ominous, inimitable, inimical sight, layers and layers of them like some enormous human onion, murmuring, rumouring… the sight and the sound alike say it: minion minion minion. Many minions. (But is any one his favourite?) The archvillain’s patience is at a minimum; with some animus, he declares “I’m in no…”

But wait. These minions are kind of cute. That one there especially. Is that reasonable? Decent? Sensible? We know what minions are; how could one be some kind of mini son, perhaps even un peu charmant?

Well, in fact, although we see the plural of this word more often than the singular nowadays, and typically relating to some evil figure, be it the devil (or, occasionally, Bill Gates) or some lesser dark power, originally a minion was a favourite hanger-on of some powerful person (king, prince, what have you). Fitting enough if he got his fill of the filet, for this word comes from the French mignon – “dainty, charming, cute, etc.” It seems to have come to the “sidekick” sense by way of a term for a lover. (It is not related to minyan, the quorum of ten males required for Orthodox Jewish worship.)

But over time it came to refer to anonymous replaceable henchmen, the sort to which the boss may simply say “Do, minion” to exercise his dominion, the sort that are mown down innumerably in movies. No doubt the negative sense came in pretty much from the beginning, though: resentment and insinuation come with the turf – as in Marlowe’s Edward II (1593): “The king is love-sick for his minion.” The insecure sneers of a more benighted time. How easy it was for it to become a simple typecast.

There is another type of minion I’d like to cast eyes on, though: a typeface made by Adobe. It’s an elegant, economical serif face with some modern touches. It’s among my favourites; I’ve used it in laying out magazines. And I am not at all alone in my liking for it: when you settle down to feast your eyes on the great dominion of the planet with a copy of National Geographic, the stories you read are all set in Minion.

Thanks to Rosemary Tanner for suggesting minion after watching Despicable Me.

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