1 May 2012

Peter Lick-Lard

Charles de Rémusat explains how Peter Abelard (1079-1142) got his name in his biography Pierre Abélard, Vol. I (Paris: Ladrange, 1845), pp. 12-3. My own translation:
Abelard himself acknowledged that he was never any good at mathematics. His mind had unexpected difficulty with this kind of work, perhaps because he lacked natural ability, but this is doubtful, since dialectic resembles calculation; or it may be that, already confident and ambitious, he was only able to give divided attention to his new studies; or finally it may be that his mind, already full of learning and concerned with a thousand other things, could only scratch the surface of this new area of knowledge. It seems that his teacher believed the last explanation to be the right one because, one day, on seeing Abelard sad and indignant at being unable to make further headway in his mathematical studies, he said, laughing: "When a dog is full, what more can it do than lick the bacon fat?" The corrupted Latin word for licking sounded, when paired with the last word of the teacher's vulgar joke, like Baiolard (Bajolardus). So it was at the school of Tirric that Pierre obtained his nickname. And this name, which referred to the weak side of an unknown man, caught on. The student adopted and accepted the schoolyard sobriquet, although he changed the sound and meaning of it somewhat. He called himself Abelard (Habelardus), boasting possession of what they claimed he could not have. If we are to believe the story, this is the origin of the childish and colloquial nickname that genius, passion, and misfortune would immortalize.
In a footnote, de Rémusat says this anecdote is the only instance of the word bajare in du Cange's Glossarium.