javel

For some reason I have an open, barely used box of Javex2 (“Bleach for Unbleachables”) sitting with the other toxic household chemicals. I vaguely recall needing it a few years ago to get something clean. I guess a bit of lemon juice wouldn’t do for whatever it was.

The origin of the name Javex is pretty clear if you turn to the French side of the box (if you’re not from Canada, that may not make sense until I tell you that all packaging in Canada is in English and French, and boxes usually have an English side and a French side). There it says “Javellisant pour non-Javellisables.” French for ‘bleach’ is javellisant, or eau de Javel, or just plain old javel.

Javel! Isn’t that the villain from Les Misérables? No, no it is not, and how dare you fling mud at this fine word.

Well, you wouldn’t be the only one to fling mud at it or besmirch its character. You see, there is an English word javel that is not related to the French javel and it is not sparkling clean.

According to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, “to javel” is “To bemire; to soil over with dirt through unnecessary traversing and travelling.” Other sources do not quite agree; they see it as a stain on the character rather than on the clothes. The Oxford English Dictionary says javel is a noun meaning “A low or worthless fellow; a rascal.” Wiktionary says it’s “(obsolete) A vagabond. (Can we find and add a quotation of Edmund Spenser to this entry?)” (Dear Wiktionary: Here’s one from “Prosopopoia: or Mother Hubberds Tale”: “But the right gentle Mind would bite his Lip / To hear the Javel so good Men to nip…”) And Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says it’s “a vagabond or worthless fellow.” So not so much some dirt from the road as some dirtbag from the road. None of them have any good etymological information, though.

But, while opposites sometimes connect, there’s no reason to think that it’s related to the French word. Did you spot the capital letter on eau de Javel? That’s like eau de Cologne: It’s named for a place. Javel – also for long stretches of history spelled Javelle, and back in the 15th century Javetz – was formerly a village and is now a neighbourhood in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, over near the southwestern tip of the city. It’s where, in 1777, Claude Louise Berthollet set up his factory making a disinfectant using sodium hypochlorite (what we normally call bleach).

It’s also where several other factories were set up over the years. In 1915, André Citroën set up a munitions factory on the Quai de Javel (the Seine forms the western boundary of Javel), and after World War I was over he started producing cars there. In 1958, the Quai de Javel was renamed the Quai André-Citroën. Pity they didn’t call it the Quai Javel-Citroën, not least because that would look like “Lemon Blëach Quay,” since citron is French for ‘lemon’.

Also because Citroen is Dutch for ‘lemon’. And it just happens that André Citroën’s father was Levie Citroen, from the Netherlands. The two dots were added in French (not to preserve the Dutch pronunciation, though, which is /siˈtrun/ like “si-troon”). And how did Levie Citroen come to have his name? His grandfather was a Dutch greengrocer who took the surname Limoenman (‘Lime-man’); that man’s son (Citroën’s grandfather) changed it to Citroen. So, yes, it actually does mean ‘lemon’.

By which I do not mean to fling mud at Citroën or his cars! The word lemon was already in use in the U.S. to mean ‘disappointment’ or ‘dud’ a few years before André Citroën built his factory. I should also say that none of these javels have any apparent relation to the javel that is the conjectural source for javelin, and thus there is also no connection to the car models AMC Javelin and Jowett Javelin.

And if you have been out throwing the javelin, or driving your car through mud, or taking part in some vagabondish adventure on the road, and you are bespattered, you can, I’m told, use lemon to get the stains out. Or would you like some Javex2? I have a mostly full box of it.

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