Seven Circumstances investigates
People in my family like to say “the people are revolting” whenever we see a riot or a demonstration on TV. I love that double entendre – “revolting” as in revolution, but also “revolting” as in disgusting. Like with many of my favourite lines in English, such as “(far from the) madding crowd” – “madding” not “maddening” – the phrase mostly gets misused and mangled. Lately I’ve been wondering which hoity-toity person originally first stuck their nose into the air and disdainfully made that statement about the hoi polloi?
Considering how long this phrase has been bandied about, it should be no surprise that it is most likely to have been uttered and reported in France, Home of the Civilian Revolution. The earliest dated reference I could find is in a documented exchange of words in 1789, between King Louis XVI of France and a nobleman, the Duke of Liancourt (François XII (Alexandre-Frédéric), Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt). The surname, La Rochefoucauld, should ring a bell, since it is a very old and famous dynasty. The exchange took place at the peak of the French Revolution.
What the Duke said to the King
Histories of the time show that, by the evening of July 14, 1789, the Paris medieval armoury, fortress, and political prison, the Bastille, had fallen to a rioting mob. After their demands were ignored, partisans under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris (soon to become Revolutionary France’s National Guard and later simply called “the mob”) had stormed and taken over the building.
Though it housed only seven prisoners at the time, the Bastille was a symbol of the repression of the people by the French monarchy. And, though these kinds of civil uprisings and marches had been occurring all through history whenever people thought, en masse, that they had had enough, the storming of the Bastille really turned the tide in favour of the revolution. Afterwards, the King and the army withdrew, and the nobility started fleeing France.
That day, July 14, members of the Assembly, an organization formed to create a French constitution, were at the Palace of Versailles with the King. Versailles is about 30 km away from where the Bastille used to be, which, at that time, was very far. So the King did not know about the storming of the Bastille until it was night-time.
Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, is thought to be the first to bring reasonably accurate news of the Paris events to Versailles. But it was the Duke of Liancourt who woke up His Majesty on the night of July 14 and told him the news. And this conversation followed:
In French, this could have been:
Sources: Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret, La Bastille est Prize, Paris, Éditions Complexe, 1988, p. 102
Also: Wikipedia, House of La Rochefoucauld; The Storming of the Bastille; Goyau, Pierre-Louis-Théophile-Georges, 1910, re. “The Duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt”, in Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
So there you have it.
I have included four sources, above, for this exchange, and there is reason to believe that this is not just an urban legend.
It is possible that the expression originated in the earliest, non-military, mass civilian uprising, the Peasants’ Revolt, also named Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Great Rising. It was a major uprising across large parts of England in 1381. It resulted in the sacking of the Tower of London, the mass execution of Royal officials, the suppression of revolt, and the execution of rebel leaders.
Elements of humour
The exchange between the King and the Duke contain the elements that have made the words famous: two different concepts, “revolt” and “revolution”, which have different meaning but sound similar, so it can be used as a pun.
Unlike later derivatives, it does not contain “people” or “natives”. However, it is assumed that the Duke of Liancourt was reporting to the King about what the people – rather than the military or the nobility – had done. The people were, amongst others, the “Third Estate”, or “commoners”, but probably these gentlemen of the Ancien Régime would have spoken about “people” (gens) or “citizens” (citoyennes).
This led to the variations on the theme – people, peasants, natives, protestors, mobs, tribes, etc., for instance “the people are revolting”, “the peasants are revolting” or “the natives are revolting”. It became popular as a catchphrase that is used whenever the public demonstrates or riots against a perceived oppressor. The phrase has been used by many writers, commentators and politicians for hundreds of years, and has come to be closely associated with the idea of an unruly, “sans-culotte” mob, wearing red Phrygian caps, wielding sticks, scythes and handy guillotines, and waving flags.
Is the mob revolting?
The idea of a mob goes back much further than the French Revolution. Mob rule or ochlocracy (Greek: ὀχλοκρατία, romanized: okhlokratía; Latin: ochlocratia) is the rule of government by a mob or mass of people, and the intimidation of authorities. The concept of illegal ruling by mob is associated with the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, meaning “the fickle crowd”, from which the English term “mob” was originally derived in the 1680s, before the French Revolution. Google Ngram shows that the word “mob” was at its apex between the 1810s and 1830s. The French, “foule”, had the greatest use in 1833.
When you think of a mob that’s the very definition of “revolting people”, no image has come to represent it better than Eugène Delacroix’s painting, “Liberty Leading the People.” (“La Liberté guidant le peuple“) Unfortunately, while the scene looks like the French Revolution, it commemorates the much later July Revolution of 1830, which toppled King Charles X of France.
They’re revolting in Canada too
An incident in which the phrase was used in its proper sense dates from March 16, 1933, when Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, the 14th Premier of the Canadian province of Québec, made the front page of the local newspaper for delivering an angry speech.
Taschereau defended what an opposition member had called the people of Québec, who were protesting the economic hardships of the time: “Les bandits de extrême Gauche” – “the bandits of the extreme left”. (Québec, for those who don’t know, is the only province of Canada in which French is the only official language. They have a reputation for being quick to revolt, much like the French.) The quote, the bandits of the extreme left, was in fact a misquote from Georges Clemenceau, who had twice been the Prime Minister of France in the preceding years.
Us? Bandits!? Jamais!
The article states that Mr. Taschereau corrected the quote about the “bandits”:
Taschereau was clearly not a supporter of “Extreme Leftist Bandits”, nor of calling the people of Québec that name, nor of politicians who promote revolution. He went on to say:
Fancy a paraprosdokian?
Most people don’t care about where an expression that they like comes from or what it really means. They will change and use the expression whichever way strikes their fancy. Many do like Terry Pratchett does in his Discworld novels – he takes an idiomatic phrase and adds on to it by interpreting it literally, which is very amusing.
In literature, this is called a “paraprosdokian”, which comes from the Greek “παρά”, meaning “against” and “προσδοκία”, meaning “expectation.” A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse, is surprising or unexpected in a way, which causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is the follow-up line, usually full of puns, to “the people are revolting”, that actually makes it funny:
The bad news to King Louis XVI has become a vehicle for puns on revoltingness, Frenchness, revolutionariness, peasants, mobs, and so on.
The weird thing is that some people enjoy inserting this quote, and other famous (mis)quotes, into existing scripts of films, after the fact, for instance, into the dialogue of the character “Alfrid Lickspittle” in The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug. It’s quite a niche form of entertainment, it seems.
Here are a couple of instances where the quote was happily (knowingly) mangled:
Bartok the Magnificent
Bartok The Magnificent (1999), a direct-to-video animated adventure comedy film. Evil “Ludmilla” is voiced by Catherine O’Hara.
History of the World Part I
Harvey Korman as “the Count de Money” (pronounced “Monet” as in “Bouquet”, not “Bucket”) and King Louis XVI (Mel Brooks) in the film History of The World Part 1 (1981):
The Wizard of Id
The Peasants Are Revolting (1971), the third collection of Wizard of Id comic strips by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart, which features a short, grumpy, despotic king and peasants who are forever revolting. This particular joke featured in The Wizard of Id probably as early as 1964, and the collection has many other puns along the same lines. (Heavily copyrighted, can’t say more.)
In Chicken Run (2000), the escape of the chickens is interrupted when the chicken farm owner Mr. Tweedy catches them in the act. He gets a chicken in the face. Mayhem ensues.
I bet you were thinking, what could possibly be complicated about that?
Well, now you know. Literature – and memes – are seldom simple.