Philology Phriday––Jest

6 Aug

The word jest, as we have come to know it now, is usually associated with joking, jocularity, joviality, levity, and things of that nature. However, the root of the word would show a very different meaning of the word when first used. And its evolution could help us find out something of our own conceptions on the, you know, big L-word.

Jest is actually an alternate spelling (found mainly in Old French and then carried on to English) of the word “gest”. “Gest” comes from the Latin “gesta” meaning actions or exploits (most explicitly of supposedly great men) and was most often used in discussions of war. For an even deeper look into the word’s history, we should see that “gesta” is the neuter plural of “guests”––the past participle of “gerare”, meaning to carry on. Gests were heroic tales of actions or exploits, stories of courage, epics of great human beings carrying on despite some given obstacle.

The word as is spelled in English today actually comes from the Old French feminine of “geste”––”jeste”. This too meant actions or exploits, but in a slightly different way. The latinate use of the word connoted bravery in acts of war or in defeating the gods, etc. However, the French meaning of the word is always connected with the then popular writings of troubadours, essentially writers of tales for the kingly court. These lyrics of the troubadours were most often romances, like Tristan and Isolde or the loosely connected tales of King Arthur. And what were these romances’s main themes. Most revolved around a myth of chivalric love, the idea that a knight fought and battled for the love of the courtly lady––most likely a princess. The main character of these tales would endure many travails along the way to achieving the central goal of receiving the favor of his fair lady. Thus in olden France, this is what a jest was, the telling or performance of a romance for the king’s court. And this feeling of romance was meant to inspire the king’s (or lord’s) men to fight indirectly for the king, although they were thinking mainly of fighting for the love of the lady.

But then, how did such a romantic thing become such a joke? There is no exact history of the shift but little irregularities do start to pop up in the late 15th century that connect jest with an idle tale, a performance solely for entertainment. Romance as entertainment, who would uh thunk it. In 1577, well after the inception and evolution of the courtly troubadour’s tales of romance, Gascoigne writes in what is called THE MEMORIES: “Thus this foolish jest, I put in doggrel rime” associating the romance of “jest” with the slightly less weighty “foolish” and “doggrel”, essentially showing the monumental shift in how we started to think about romance. The knights of the court started to get tired of the tale and its empty promise. But oddly enough, instead of rebelling against the already-embedded culture of jest-telling, the court started to see romances for what they were––idle and meant solely for entertainment.

And since these court romances are so indoctrinated in our western ways of romance, i.e. Love (that’s right, I used a capital letter), I wonder if this connection between romance and entertainment (or romance and idleness) as opposed to romance and fulfillment has had any effects on the way we conceive of love and romance. Do we consider our ideas of gushy romance, juicy and sensuous and uncontrollable, to be an empty tale we tell ourselves? Is love merely a bad joke to keep us going?


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