This word is a lean little thing, but I think it displays some of the quality it names. To an Anglophone’s eyes, the accent on the é certainly adds to that: it looks dashing, ready to sally forth – in that musketeerish way one may think of the French as having. The word often seems to mean ‘flair’ or ‘verve’ or ‘panache’, but dictionaries describe it as ‘vivacity’, ‘impetuousness’, ‘dash’, or ‘ardour’. The smooth and quick liquid sound of the word adds an elegance. One may display élan by rushing forth and clearing enemy lines like an eland bull, but this word is more of an antelope, really.
Élan is seen in élan vital, a concept set forth by Henri Bergson, an idea of a kind of vital force in all things, a life force that wants to burst forth, an impetus against entropy. Bergson presented it as a hypothetical force behind evolution, but one may readily use it in a broader sense as that liveliness that wants to spring forth, to join together, to effloresce, to create – however intrinsic or emergent it may be.
Élan is also a brand name of skis, and of a few other things as well; it also gives me a taste of some other words: island; uileann pipes (a kind of Irish bagpipe); álainn, the Irish word for ‘beautiful’ (pronounced like “alling”); and the names Elaine and Ellen. Both Elaine and Ellen are considered to be versions of Helen, but there is some suggestion that Elaine may also come from a Welsh word for ‘fawn’ – at least the Elaine seen in Arthurian legend, where it is the name of several women, notably Elaine of Corbenic, who has some undeniable élan: she draws Sir Lancelot from Guinivere, bears him Sir Galahad, and shows him the Holy Grail (thereby restoring his sanity). It occurs to me that every Elaine I know has a certain élan… though, of course, that’s not a large or scientific sampling.
And where does élan come from? French, obviously, but specifically the verb élancer ‘rush forth’, which traces back to Latin ex ‘out’ and lanceare ‘throw a lance’ (from lancea ‘lance’). This makes it surprisingly similar to the word sally, another word for venturing boldly forth that has a coincidental overtone (extremely strong in its case) of a female name – and is also two syllables with a [l] in the middle. Bold words, full of ardour, and yet vital with a lithe femininity in form and sound, at least to my ears.