travesty

What word would you most likely expect to hear after travesty? How about of? OK, of what?

I’m reckoning you thought of the same word as I did, and it’s the top result in the Corpus of Contemporary American English: justice. Yup, the world may be full of travesties, but the phrase that it goes around most often in now is travesty of justice.

Not that that’s the only way it’s seen. Indeed, more often than that you’ll see it without further description: “This is a travesty.” “What a travesty.” “Those jeans are a travesty.”

Actually, this word came up a couple of days ago when I was talking with my wife about people’s clothing. I said that people who buy jeans should get to see themselves from behind in them before buying them, because there are a lot of jeans that look fine from the front but are utter travesties from the back.

Is that a reasonable use, though? Was I being unduly influenced by transvestite (not what I had in mind) or tragedy (I wasn’t saying that they were sad, just risible) or travertine (light limestone? really, no) or some phonaesthetic influence from the /tr/ (which has a gripping sound and also heads up words such as treachery and traitor) and the aggressiveness (viciousness perhaps?) of /v/? Had I simply heard it recently and so it was fresh in my mind (not that I recall)?

More likely I had it in mind that they did an injustice to the figure and made something of a mockery of it. After all, a travesty is a satire, a parody, a mockery of something: a literary satire that debases the original, for instance. It’s sometimes used for ludicrous female (or male) impersonators (there’s that transvestite again). In any event, there’s typically a theatrical association in the literal usage, which makes me want to see travest like a curtain suspended from a trave, parting in the middle at v to be pulled aside so some ranting actor may rave (and what about the y? either a codpiece or the drain the whole thing is going down).

But, then, there’s also that old adjectival sense, “dressed so as to be made ridiculous” (to quote Oxford). Not that we use it that way now… or maybe we do. The French source, travestie, however, originally meant just “disguise”; it came from a verb se travestir, “disguise oneself as someone else”. That came to French by way of Italian, from the Latin trans “across” and vestire “clothe” – literally “cross-dressing”, and of course the source of transvestite.

Really, though, I’m not saying that bad jeans make your butt look like a transvestite’s. Most transvestites I’ve ever seen are very sharp dressers and would never let their butts look like these jeans make them look. It simply wouldn’t do them justice.

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