I was looking again today at some of the photos of Francesca Woodman (by of do I mean she was the photographer or subject? In fact, always the former but usually the latter as well). The word that I felt I wanted for describing them was insolite.

This is not an English word, really; wherever it’s used in English, it’s used as a borrowed term, said in the French style. The sense when we do such things is that we don’t have exactly the right word in English, but that this loan word carries the sense we want. Often the loan word is used to describe something pertaining to the culture from which the word comes. But Francesca Woodman was American – a young woman who threw herself out a New York window to her death at the age of 22 in 1981, leaving behind thousands of negatives, only some 120 of which have ever made it to publication. Her parents have the rest, and we may hope that the rest of the world will see more of them. (She was not an unknown amateur who never showed her work around; she was not a Vivian Maier. She was actively pursuing a life as a photographic artist, until she actively pursued a death as one.)

Is insolite the right word? What, in fact, does it mean? Well, to start with, what does it make you think of? Overt loan words will always mean differently in the borrowing language, first of all insofar as they come with the flavour of foreignness, of the strange, the other, but also insofar as they may have echoes of different words in their unaccustomed environs. Certainly some of the echoes in English match French echoes: unsolid is like insolide, isolate like isolé. On the other hand, how about unsullied?

Insolite has, as a dictionary definition, “unusual, strange”. But there are so many things that unusual and strange can mean, so many flavours: positive, negative, derisory, admiring, silly, scary. So which is this word? Ah, well, indeed… Insolite, as it happens, is among that class of loan words that get dropped like croutons into the verbal salads of academics and art critics, and such words can be sprinkled with different seasonings, covered with different dressings – each author has his or her own angle to push.

Insolite is a word often seen in relation to Surrealism and Dadaism. In those contexts, we can see much that is overdone and even risible. But not always; Surrealism often had a certain solemnity to it. And Woodman’s work, influenced by Surrealism, has a similar fantastic but solemn quality. But we should also note that the Surrealists took the term insolite from Symbolism, where it had been used to translate the German unheimlich.

Ah, unheimlich… there’s a word to choke on. It is not a homey word. In fact, what it signifies is more in the way of the eldritch – eerie strange, horripilating. Ethereal, fairy-like, and not necessarily the good kind of fairy. Gothic, even. Woodman was also interested in the Gothic and identified with Victorian heroines. It is convenient that the shape of this word plays into this mood: a person walking along, level, quiet, with a candle i, which burns out s – oh no – and then the hairs on the back of the neck stand up lit at the sight of an eye in the darkness e

Given this unheimlich manoeuvre, we will find that the unsolid, isolated echoes – and perhaps also the unsullied (too, too unsullied?) – apply well. In the photographs you see a woman who, intentionally or not, was a ghost in training, already estranged, fading, isolated, and so light…

2 responses to “insolite

  1. Very interesting. I hit upon it whilst looking for the translation of the word “insolite” as a heading in a marketing document I’m translating from French. Haven’t found a translation for my context yet but it did give me some more angles on the word to ponder. I don’t think it gets used much as a “borrowed” word in the UK and my context is the general public and not the art world so I need to get my brain cells working.

  2. As a linguist and student of words (and speaker of French and English), I really enjoyed your reflections both on the word “insolite” and on the unexpected (insolite?) timbre that borrowed words assume as strangers in a different semantic context. The word had occurred to me in a piece I’m writing in English, and I was searching for meanings for it as I debated whether I really wanted to do that. I think now, in the context for which I’m writing, it’s perhaps a bit too risky. Thank you!

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