I first encountered this word when watching some spelling bee or other on TV. It struck me as a rather pretentious word, the sort of word that doesn’t really seem to make any sense or have any place in the modern world other than as a word you don’t know, and in particular one you don’t know how to spell. Even to one literate in Latin roots it is a closed boudoir door, the inaudible whisper in a lady’s ear of her companion standing behind her.

It has no obvious roots; its morphology is rather opaque. Indeed, etymological sources are reduced to weak speculation: perhaps it’s from bel cece “beautiful chickpea” (or the French chiche beau); perhaps it’s from onomatopoeia for whispering or chattering. In the end, it is just there, and what are you going to do about it?

And what, pray tell, is a cicisbeo? Someone you don’t see these days, to start with. He’s more a creature of the 18th century, in Italy and France, among the nobility. A synonym is cavalier servente. He was the recognized gallant of a married lady.

This first puts me in mind of Paul Varjak, the charming young man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played so well by George Peppard in the movie. But he’s no cicisbeo: he’s the kept lover of a married woman, but he goes nowhere with her outside the apartment she has set up for him, and her husband doesn’t know about him. A cicisbeo went everywhere with his lady; he stood behind her chair and whispered in her ear; they would go to assorted entertainments together; they might also go behind closed doors in the boudoir together.

The intimate nature of the arrangement undoubtedly varied, as some cicisbei were not actually sexually attracted to women – but made excellent companions. Whatever the arrangement, it was socially acceptable; indeed, the husband would open himself to ridicule if he objected. The cicisbeo was there, and what could he do about it? But he was likely too busy with his mistress to object.

Given that sense, can you make the form of the word go together with it somehow? Is the /tʃitʃi/ like a sound of summoning, or whispering, or tongues clicking in interest, approbation, or condemnation? How about the buzz of the /zb/ – is that the buzz of a honey bee courting the flower? Can you see the act of saying /bɛo/ as like a kiss, a bacio (or baiser)? The word as a whole makes me think of a character from Happy Days: Chachi, played by Scott Baio.

And the lines, dots, and curls of the written word, sitting there like ruffled chest hair? You may see in the cici two ears and two i’s in service of the lady; perhaps you spot cis, which as a prefix would mean “to this side” (the converse of trans, “to the other side”), or in reverse sic (transit Gloria? how’s Monday for you?). Hopefully the beo doesn’t bring too much B.O. – better to call forth a wulf.

Stan Backs, who suggested this word, observes that “According to [Canadian finance minister] Jim Flaherty, there is no bad job.” Many guys would be inclined to say that cicisbeo sounds like nice work if you can get it. But we ought to remember that they could always be replaced, these cicisbei; cicisbeism may have been an institution, but the individual pretty boys could fall out of fashion, at which time – unless they found another lady to favour them – they would be spiantati: penniless cast-offs.

2 responses to “cicisbeo

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik

  2. Pingback: 8 Obscure Words To Describe Your First Date Experience

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