Huguenot Nothings - Frank McNally on the mysterious origins of a French nickname

What’s in a name?

La Rochelle is historically famous as the stronghold of French Protestants. Photograph: Getty Images

The visit of La Rochelle for a certain rugby match in Dublin last weekend reminded me of an email from a reader a while back that, as usual, I meant to reply to at the time and then forgot.

La Rochelle is historically famous as the stronghold of French Protestants – the “Huguenots” – and the scene of their last stand, during the siege of 1627-28.

After that, they became religious refugees to Protestant-ruled countries, including Britain and Ireland: hence a 17th-century cemetery dedicated to them near Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green.

That, as I remembered, was what the reader had written to me about. More specifically, he had identified an apparent typo in the cemetery’s own title, as carved in stone over the entrance.


And sure enough, when I went searching, there the email was, two-and-a-half years old now, from one Cian Flaherty, with the message subject “Hughenot?”

“Dear Mr McNally,

“A lady I know recently expressed dismay that the inscription over the gate of the Huguenot cemetery on St Stephen’s Green contains an error: Huguenot is rendered ‘Hughenot’. The lady in question has been expressing dismay for thirty years or so, to no avail. Do you think it might be worth airing in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’? And is it a mistake, or is Hughenot an obscure but legitimate spelling variant?”

The emailed added: “No doubt you have more entertaining material with which to fill the Diary, but I decided to write to you anyway, in case you ever found yourself in desperate need of a gap-filler.”

Well now: accepting the compliment in the first half of Cian’s last sentence and side-stepping the word “desperate”, like a Leinster ball-carrier faced with Will Skelton, I will go direct (if belatedly) to the question.

And yes, my first thought too was that “Hughenot” must be a variant, dating from a time when spelling in general was more random than now and bearing in mind that the word was a French import in English anyway.

But it turns out that the question of how to spell it is subordinate to a greater mystery: what the name means, or where it comes from.

Because despite the suggestion of knowledge implicit in their final syllable, complete with silent “t”, not even the Huguenots know why they’re called Huguenots.

And it Huguenots don’t know, nobody knows.

The British Huguenot Museum gets asked the question a lot, but as admitted on its website, has no simple answer, only several theories, none validated.

The more plausible guesses include a Calvinistic origin, via Geneva, combining the Flemish words “Huisgenooten” (“house fellows”) and the German “Eidgenosen” (“confederates bound together by oath”), which described a faction in Geneva that sought independence from the Catholic Duke of Savoy.

More colourful but less likely etymologies include the corruption of an old taunt that French Protestants where “les guenons de Hus” (“the monkeys of Hus”, after the Czech martyr Jan Hus, burned at the stake in 1415)

There is also a possible connection to a man named Besancon Hugues, who although Catholic, was a leader in the Geneva movement. But the simplest, and perhaps most plausible, explanation involves a gate in the eastern French city of Tours, to which we’ll return in a moment.

First, a short detour via the latest issue of History Ireland, which by curious coincidence has an essay on the Irish Huguenots as featured in the writings James Joyce.

Now there was a man who knew all about spelling variations. His last and least readable masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, attempted to do with language what the physicists of his time were doing with matter: breaking words into their component parts and recombining them in multilingual puns to unleash (he hoped) powerful new forces on literature.

In his hands, the Huguenots become “huguenottes” and “hughe-knots”, among other things, although he arguably had more fun in Ulysses with the name of a Huguenot-descended Dublin soprano of his day, Marie Dubedat:

“May I tempt you to a little more filleted lemon sole, miss Dubedat? Yes, do bedad. And she did bedad.”

But back to that gate in Tours, named after a 10th-century Frankish King Hugo, whose ghost was said to harass those out after dark. The city’s Protestants had to hold their services at night, in secret. Hence, goes the theory, Catholic monks may have mocked them with a term deriving from the ghostly king’s name.

I was not yet aware of that story when, after watching last Saturday’s gripping game on TV, I tweeted “Huguenots 1, Hugos 0?”. Insofar as this was a witticism – which is questionable I agree – it derived partly from beer and partly from my impression that Leinster rugby fans have an unusually high propensity to be named Hugo.

But as I now know, my Frankish pun may have been a tautology. If the Tours theory is correct, etymologically, Huguenots and Hugos are much the same thing.