August 16, 2022

The story behind the phrase “The Year of Living Dangerously”

The Year of Living Dangerously book & movie 01

Google has a cool tool for researchers of words and phrases (including quotations) called the Ngram Viewer.

It graphs the occurrence of a word or phrase in books published between the years 1500 and 2008.

If you do an Ngram search for the phrase “the year of living dangerously,” you’ll see a huge, continuing spike starting in the early 1980s.

That’s because it gained major worldwide popularity with the release of the ‘80s film The Year of Living Dangerously.

The movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, first debuted in Australia on December 17, 1982.

It was initially given a limited released in the United States on January 21, 1983, then released nationwide here on February 18, 1983.

The Year of Living Dangerously is one of my own favorite romantic adventure films.

It stars Mel Gibson (back when he was still cool and hot), Sigourney Weaver (who is still cool and hot) and Linda Hunt, in her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role as a man.

Depsite how much I liked it then and now, The Year of Living Dangerously was only a modest hit at the box office. (It grossed a mere $10.3 million during it’s run in U.S. theaters.)

However, the movie’s title became a huge linguistic hit as a catchphrase that has become embedded in our language and spawned many variations.

Indeed, if you Google “the year of living *” -dangerously (using Boolean search techniques to look for versions of the phrase that don’t include the word dangerously), you’ll see thousands of different variations.

A few examples include:

Although the movie made “the year of living dangerously a widely-known catchphrase, it’s not the origin.

Nor is the 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher J. Koch, which the film version is based on.

The setting for the book and movie is Jakarta, Indonesia during the chaotic period that led to the overthrow of the country’s long-time dictator, President Sukarno.

Author Koch took his title from a speech Sukarno made in 1964.

The President had a custom of giving a special name to each year in his annual “National Day” speech.

In the National Day speech he gave on August 17, 1964, Sukarno named the upcoming year “the year of living dangerously.”

This reflected the challenges he knew he faced from his political enemies, who included both hard-line Communists and radical Muslims.

The multilingual leader’s name for the year was based partly on an old Italian phrase he was familiar with — “vivere pericoloso” (“living dangerously”).

Although Sukarno gave the speech in the Indonesian language, he inserted those Italian words after the Indonesian word for year, tahun, to create the name.

The year ahead, he said, would be the “Tahun vivere pericoloso.”

The Google Ngram for “the year of living dangerously” suggests that it first appeared in English-language books around the time Sukarno gave his 1964 National Day address.

Some sources credit him with coining it and, based on what I know at this point, I think he probably did.

Either way, his choice of the name for the coming year certainly turned out to be prophetic.

In September of 1965, a bloody coup began that led to his overthrow.

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed in the power struggle. Sukarno survived and was allowed to live out the rest of his days under “house arrest,” until his death in Jakarta on June 21, 1970.

His phrase “the year of living dangerously” and its numerous linguistic offspring live on.

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August 13, 2022

“No man is a hero to his valet” – the backstory on a famous proverb and misquote...


Charlotte Aïssé (1693-1733) was quite a celebrity in France in the early 18th Century — part heroine, part sex symbol, part intellectual.

As a child, her father’s palace was raided by the Turks. They took her captive but soon sold her to Count Charles de Ferriol, the French ambassador at Constantinople.

She was raised by Ferriol's sister-in-law in Paris and became a beauty who attracted the attention of several prominent French aristocrats.

After her death, her fame grew.

Three French plays were written about her. The letters she wrote to her friend Madame Calandrini were edited by the eminent French writer Voltaire and published in 1787, in a book titled Lettres de Mademoiselle Aïssé a Madame Calandrini [“Letters of Mademoiselle Aïssé to Madame Calandrini”].

In one of those letters, dated August 13, 1728, Aïssé mentioned a quip she’d heard.

It was a comment by another prominent French lady, Anne-Marie Bigot de Cornuel (1605-1694), who was once the mistress of King Louis XIV.

A simplified English translation of part of what Madame Cornuel said became cited as a famous proverbial quotation:

      “No man is a hero to his valet.”

Many books and online posts attribute this quote to Cornuel by way of Aïssé’s letter.

However, although Aïssé did write something like that, the attributed quote is a case of something gained in translation.

In the original French, what Aïssé actually wrote in her letter was:

“Je vous renvoie à ce que disoit madame Cornuel, qu’il n’y avoit point de héros pour les valets de chambre, et point de pères de l’Église parmi ses contemporains.”

A literal English translation of her words is something like this:

“I refer to what Madame Cornuel said, that there were no heroes to valets, nor to the Fathers of the Church among their contemporaries.”

Somewhere along the line, in English translations, the valet part of Aïssé’s comment morphed from “there were no heroes to valets” into “No man is a hero to his valet.”

I suspect that is because the saying “No man is a hero to his valet” already existed as a proverbial saying in French.

Indeed, “No man is a hero to his valet” is listed in many sources simply as an old French or English proverb

The meaning of the proverb is that a servant (such as a valet) does not usually have the same grand, positive view other people may have of the servant’s master or employer.

Why? Because servants get to know the bad sides of their masters better than people who don’t spend time with them on a daily basis. In addition, “underlings” are often treated worse by their masters or employers than other people.

So, Madame Cornuel’s letter is not the origin of the quip about valets. She was using a version of an existing proverb and her line was misquoted in English to fit the saying.

So... Je suis désolé, Madame Cornuel. You apparently don’t deserve credit for coining “No man is a hero to his valet” — or even for saying those exact words.

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