Google Ngrams and the Rastaquouère

One of the pieces on which I focus in my dissertation is Antonin Proust’s (no relation) “Paris et les Étrangers.” Proust was Minister of Fine Arts under Gambetta (1881–1882) and Commissioner-General of Fine Arts for the 1889 World’s Fair. (He also, not to be too TMZ about the whole thing, had been a boyhood friend of Manet, was mixed up in the Panama scandals of the 1890s, and shot himself in the head after an argument with a dancer.)

Despite having being one of the spokesmen for the international event that was the Exposition Universelle, Proust’s article (for Les Types de Paris) oozes xenophobia. He berates the French for their uncritical obsession with all things foreign, suggesting that such “rastaquoùerisme” is at the heart of the decline in national industry and national pride.

I’d never heard the word before. It’s from “rastaquouère,” which is itself from the Spanish “rastracueros” — both a despicable person and a fur/hide wholesaler. In French, the Trésor de la langue française says it first designated a person of South American or Mediterranean origin, poor taste, and ostentatious wealth of dubious origins “prob. dû au fait que beaucoup de Sud-américains à l’élégance tapageuse qui séjournaient à Paris à la fin du XIXe s. devaient leur fortune récente au commerce des cuirs et peaux.” Quickly, however,it came to mean any kind of despicable or suspicious-looking foreigner, and “rastaquoùerisme” a kind of misguided, vulgar exoticism. Where the dictionary was less helpful, however, was in the timing or frequency of its usage, so I decided to plus it into the fascinating Google Ngram viewer to see what that might reveal.

Screenshot 2014-10-09 15.58.21

Instances of the word “rastaquouère” in French Literature 1850—1950

What this tells us, then, is that 1889 really marks the first peak in the word’s use (and, presumably, in the sentiments it expresses). While the French people were going dolally over foreign things, their politicians were increasingly concerned about foreign people and foreign affairs, never mind patriotism and national pride. Rumbling threats were coming from the East. European monarchies trembled in their thrones at the thought of a centennial of the revolution. Boulanger had opened the path for national socialism, and just over the horizon lay the Dreyfus Affair. The sudden rise of the “rastaquouère” illustrates just how rapidly distrust of the foreigner grew in the years leading up to the First World War.

But there are so many questions! Why that sudden dip around 1905, and then the dramatic rise between 1906 and 1909? What relationship does the 1898 peak have with the acquittal of Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, if any? Researching the answers is, unfortunately, beyond the parameters of the “micro-history of a chronotope” that is my dissertation—and therefore not going to happen any time soon. Perhaps this summer.

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