Casanova the Noun

OED entry: “Used allusively of a man whose amorous activities resemble those of Casanova.”

Merriam Webster: “Lover, especially : a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover.”

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A while back I had a book promotion event and someone in the audience had a good question that I couldn’t answer. He asked when Casanova’s reputation as a “casanova” got started. Did people use “casanova” as a noun (as in “He’s such a casanova”) while Casanova was alive? Or when did that take hold? Well, of course I had to find the answer!

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Casanova wrote his memoirs while living in Dux, which is now part of the Czech Republic. He was still working on revising and adding to the manuscript at the time of his death in 1798, and his relatives inherited these papers. Histoire de ma vie (Story of my Life), was first published by Brockhaus around 1822, though this edition was heavily edited and abridged. In the 1890s, Arthur Symons released an acclaimed English edition, which brought Casanova to the attention of English speakers. A few other notable writings appeared: English writer Havelock Ellis wrote a number of essays that placed Casanova in a positive light and increased his popularity; Stefan Zweig’s essay on C was widely read; and American writer Guy Endore published an excellent biography in the 1920s. Around this time, volumes of the French Sirène edition began appearing in France, with the first complete French edition appearing in 1960.Willard Trask’s 1966 edition made the complete memoirs available to English readers in an edition that contained copious notes as well.

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If we want to know etymology, the most widely accepted source is the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED). Its contributors scour thousands of publications to find a word’s first usage in print. Here’s what the OED offers on “casanova” the noun:

“1888 Encyclopedia Britannica XXIII.215/1: There is also no doubt a touch of Casanova in Barry Lyndon’s character.

“1928 E. Cantor. My Life is in your Hands v.52: My grandmother … came to box my ears and take the infant Casanova home.

“1932 W. Faulkner Light in August i.4: Young bachelors, or sawdust Casanovas … were even fewer in number than families.

“1959 J. Braine Vodi vi.94: A resplendent Casanova in a royal blue sports jacket.”

(The Merriam-Webster dictionary says the earliest documented use is 1852 but gives no proof or quote.)

Giacomo_Casanova_by_Anton_Raphael_Mengs

Portrait of the real Casanova, before he became a noun

Merriam-Webster also offers these synonyms. If you’ve read C’s actual memoirs, you might find this list rather unfair; while Casanova did indeed seduce lots of women, many people would argue that he did so in the majority of instances lovingly and with respect. The modern usage of “casanova” is most often derogatory, comic, or insulting.

“Synonyms: Don Juan, lecher, lothario, lounge lizard, masher, philanderer, satyr, wolf, womanizer.

“Related Words: amorist, gallant, ladies’ man (also lady’s man), lady-killer, lover, paramour, Romeo, debaucher, romancer, seducer, whoremaster, whoremonger.”

Here’s a video from Dailymotion showing pronunciation and definition for the tern “casanova.” It’s a bit annoying, but you might find it amusing:

So to sum it all up, it looks like “casanova” became a noun officially in 1888. I wonder if the man himself would be proud of the journey his name has taken? Somehow, as much as Casanova enjoyed fame, I doubt he’d be happy with this occurrence of it.

Thank you to friends who sent links and shared their knowledge, notably Tom Vitelli, Marco Leeflang, and James Chavez Glica-Hernandez.

Since posting this entry, I heard from D. Detailleur, a fellow Casanova enthusiast. With his permission, I’m adding his further research into this Casanova-as-noun study, this interpretation that adds such an interesting explanation for the change in meaning:

Dear Kathleen,

 I’ve read your post on Seductive Venice about Casanova-  the Noun. As I was interested, I started some research and came across Francis Furlan, a French casanovist who specialized in how Casanova was received through the years in literature, press accounts and so on. In his ‘Casanova, analyse d’un mythe littéraire’ (Université de Bordeaux, 1974, p. 258-261) Furlan writes some interesting things about the matter. I’ve included a copy of the pages involved. I have summarized and paraphrased the pages in English. But first I have to say that in French (and also in Dutch, my mother language) when a proper name becomes a word, the capitalization in upper case changes into a lower case. In English, as far as I can judge, the capitalization mostly remains. So, in my ‘American Heritage Dictionary’ the entries are Casanova, Don Juan, Maecenas. For the sake of clarity I will write those words with lower case when paraphrasing the author.

In this two pages  Francis Furlan tells us…

“How Casanova entered the lexicon in the form of a simple word beginning with a lower case is in the way as one speaks of a don juan, a maecenas, a tartuffe. Probably the transformation was later than that of the name Don Juan, which was already in use around 1910. For Casanova it must have been effected around 1925, because in 1928 Stefan Zweig mentions for the first time in his ‘Drei Dichter ihres Lebens’ that a casanova means in all European languages an irresistible seducer. Zweig, however, does not explain the causes of the transformation. What causes can be given?

Around those years there was a particular high interest in the author of the memoirs. There was the publication of the ‘Edition de la Sirène’ and the ‘Pages casanoviennes,’ and newspapers, critics and writers were happy to deal with Casanova. The bicentenary of his birthday alone cannot explain this animated attention.  More motives were present.  There was the liberty of ‘les années folles,’ the euphoria after the Great War: the cult of Venus had replaced the cult of Mars. But there were also deeper causes.  Slowly the West was delivering itself from its puritanism. Casanova became a kind of symbol of this liberation. It was also the moment when freudism was vulgarized. This freudism brought with it a conscience of the existence of the libido. It was also the time of surrealism, where some great ancestors as Sade became fashionable. In the same way Casanova was regarded as one of those free heroes from before the bourgeois area.

So,  a don juan or a casanova became words with hardly any connection left to their literary or historic sources. They both describe a particular type of lover: the continuously unsatisfied one, always on the search for new adventures.

The only semantic difference between the two might be found in their application in the linguistic field.  Don Juan is mostly applied in a more elevated style, while a Casanova corresponds to a more familiar or vulgar nuance: ‘don Juan’ is more easily found in literary texts and used by the more highly cultivated, while ‘casanova’ is more present in the ordinary press. This is no doubt a reflection of their origins.  Those who know the sources could bring don juan in connection to literary and musical works, which are perfectly decent, while casanova evokes for some the memoirs with its suggestive scenes. Anyway, the references to the historical or literary personages are bound to become more and more loose, in the same way as one speaks of a maecenas without knowing where the word comes from.”

In this optic the 1928 quotation from E. Cantor perfectly fits into Furlan’s explanation, while the 1888 citation from the Britannica can be regarded as still pointing to the historical person of Casanova.

 

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About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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4 Responses to Casanova the Noun

  1. Nancy Schwalen says:

    Interesting history of the popular usage of the name!

  2. There’s very little that can be done to change it but I always think it’s a shame it’s such a one dimensional noun – a shame it simply means “a seducer” when it could mean “a seducer with a love of travel, women and adventure.” And food. And magic. etc etc. Obviously it could continue for quite a while. But it’s a shame it only ever means the sex connotations and that so shapes the view of Casanova in popular culture.
    We all know people who just continually shag around but few are interesting or engaging or someone you’d ask to a dinner party. The interest of Casanova is that he appears to be all of these things and more with a dose of arrogance thrown in for interest.

    • You’re right on here. I think what happened is that censored editions of C’s memoirs circulated and, though they were censored, that propagated the idea that he wrote solely about love and sex. Those aspects became the focal point specifically because he was being censored. Ironic.

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