The Etymology of “Chauvinism”

“Chauvinism” comes from the name of Nicolas Chauvin, one of Napoleon’s most zealous and vocal supporters, even long after the Napoleonic Wars concluded. However, he may have been an entirely fictional, blindly nationalistic Bonapartist character who appeared in vaudeville and stories from the mid-1800s.

The word chauvinism is defined today as excessive and aggressive nationalism, or blind and exaggerated patriotism. It is often associated with the phrase “male chauvinism,” used to describe a masculine-centric worldview, but it did not earn this gendered connotation until it was appropriated by members of 1960s feminist movements.

The word originally arose in the 1830s and comes directly from the French chauvinisme, which was eponymous with a fellow named Nicolas Chauvin.

Chauvin was said to have been one of the most loyal soldiers in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Purportedly born in Rochefort c. 1780, Chauvin enlisted at age 18 and served with such dedication that Napoleon himself presented him with a Sabre of Honor. Long after the Napoleonic Wars concluded with the fall of Napoleon’s empire, Chauvin supposedly remained an absurdly staunch Bonapartist nationalist, loudly touting his blind and zealous devotion to the cause for the rest of his life, which resulted in ridicule from most people in Restoration France. In the collective imagination of the time, he exemplified war glorification and the dramatically pro-military attitude that was prevalent among Napoleon’s soldiers after the war.

But the most fascinating thing about Nicholas Chauvin is that he may not have existed at all. There are no concrete historical records of his existence, and it’s most likely that his supposed exploits were actually those of a variety of other fervent Bonapartists.

Chauvin was, however, a character/caricature that appeared in French vaudeville as a humorous representation of hyperbolic, fanatical nationalism. In narratives from the time, the character also filled the role of the miles gloriosus (“braggart soldier”), a stock character trope from Greek comedy characterized by unwarranted boastfulness.

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