Thursday, September 18, 2008

WOTD: Oubliette

I found my arms swathed down — my feet tied so fast that mine ankles ache at the very remembrance — the place was utterly dark — the oubliette, I suppose, of their accursed convent, and from the close, stifled, damp smell, I conceive it is also used for a place of sepulture.

Ivanoe, Sir Walter Scott (1819)

This is a wonderful little word. An oubliette is a dungeon or prison cell whose only means of egress is through a trapdoor in the ceiling. For that reason, it’s usually deep underground, dark, cold, and made of earth and stone. It’s basically the opposite of the chamber in which Frodo was imprisoned in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, which was at the very top of the tower and could be reached only through a trapdoor in its floor, though I daresay one might still call that an oubliette.

The etymology of the word should be readily apparent to French speakers. It derives (fairly recently, too) from the French oublier “to forget”, which in turn comes from Latin oblīvisci “to forget” (and from which we derive the Modern English oblivion). With this etymology in mind, the chamber in the Tower of Cirith Ungol really would have become an oubliette if Sam hadn’t come along, and all the Orcs had killed each other off leaving Frodo all alone in the Tower!

With a slightly related etymology and meaning is perdition. Like oubliette, the word comes to us from Latin by way of French. In this case, it’s the French perdre “to lose” (which is not so different from forgetting), from Latin perdĕre, which means “to lose utterly; to destroy, finish, ruin” (more literally per “to an end” + dăre “to put”). Perdition refers more figuratively to eternal punishment in hell, which is rather what being lost or forgotten in an oubliette must feel like. I can’t help but think of the Man in the Iron Mask.

Are there opportunities to use oubliette metaphorically in the world today? Ever been stuck in an elevator between floors? I have, and I’d say it’s pretty close. A small, claustrophobic cell from which the only escape may be through a trapdoor in the ceiling. More rhetorically, one might use the word to describe a kind of figurative cul de sac in an argument, or perhaps a social or political trap into which one has fallen.


  1. Great word. I learned this one as a kid from a book called Family Sabbatical about an American Family touring Europe. The little girl droppped her doll down the Oubliette.

  2. Hi, Sam. Thanks for the comment. Family Sabbatical, eh? Is that the book by Carol Ryrie Brink and Susan Foster, published in 1956? I don’t know it, but isn’t it interesting to see where strange little words like oubliette turn up?

    In addition to your example and mine (Sir Walter Scott), you can also find the word in Kurt Vonnegut, Victor Hugo, Piers Anthony (as a character’s name), Tennessee Williams, and Thomas Harris (he calls that cave-like well in which Buffalo Bill keeps his victims in The Silence of the Lambs an oubliette) — just to name a few.

  3. I remember coming across oubliette in my youth and liking the word. For some reason I long associated it with the disposall (garbage grinder) in the kitchen sink!

    The etymological connotation of "forget" - as in, put the prisoner down in the oubliette and forget about him - was so cruel. When there's just a an anonymous trap door in the floor, you don't even walk past a human-size cell door in a wall to remind you there is someone behind it. I wonder how many prisoners were just forgotten and starved to death in such places?

    You might also consider this version, from the 20th century:
    "...[there was] within easy reach of Winston's arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.(Orwell, 1984, pp. 34-35 - as quoted in wikipedia)

    Isn't 'memory hole' as good a translation of oubliette as any other?

  4. Squire, thanks for the input. You’re right about the cruelty, and if you want more proof, just consider the heart-rending portrayal of The Man in the Iron Mask in the 1977 TV movie by Richard Chamberlain — the thinking man’s Adam West; or is he the gay man’s William Shatner? Hmm. Wait, I lost my train of thought; are we talking about cruelty toward the prisoner or ourselves, the viewers? ;)

    Seriously, though, you’re right. I only joke because the alternative (e.g., the idea of oubliettes in Nazi concentration camps, for instance) is really just too horrifying to focus on.

    Isn’t ‘memory hole’ as good a translation of oubliette as any other?

    I like the connection to Orwell’s memory holes; however, it bears pointing out (for those less familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four) that the usage here is entirely ironic. In Newspeak, things tend to be expressed through their opposites (e.g., “ungood”, “joycamp”, “doublespeak”, “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, etc.). The memory holes are really designed to forget, of course, not remember. So I don’t think you could say “memory hole” is really a good translation for oubliette, not unless you take the word “translation” itself in a kind of Orwellian sense. It is, however, a good ironic translation of the idea, which is after all probably what you meant. :)

  5. I can't even find the word in any English-Bulgarian dictionary, so thank you - I learned something new today. Like the real-life 'limbo' - not for forgotten things, but for actual people.

    As much as I aspire to become more and more fluent in English, I guess I'd probably need to take some classes in French.

  6. Adanedhel, you’re very welcome! The types of words I’ve posted (and will continue to post) as Words of the Day are probably unlikely to appears in any but the most exhaustive bilingual dictionaries (if even there). In fact, they often won’t appear in a typical desktop English dictionary, but only in bigger unabridged ones.

    Since you mention it, the word limbo actually has a pretty interesting etymology of its own. Its the ablative case of limbus, the Latin word for “border”, an the original phrase was in limbo, Latin for "on the border [of hell]”.

    As to learning some French, I highly recommend it. I’m pretty comfortable with Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, and can read a decent amount of Portuguese too. Once you learn one Romance language, picking up others is pretty straightforward, especially once you start to notice how they relate to one another through sound changes.

    One language I’ve been meaning to study more than I have is German. I only know the lamest little bit of it now, but it’s an important one.

  7. Oui, Romance language do have a lot in common. I myself have studied Spanish and a crash course in French and Latin and I read Portuguese and Italian quite decently but I definitely need to pick up some more French. I regret not learning some Deutsch as my interests have recently steered towards Scandinavian languages and Old English, but hey - there's still time, right?

    And in order for my post to be useful, I offer you this info:

    Oubliette in Bulgarian is actually "taina tamnitsa" (secret/hidden dungeon), whereas other Slavic languages (Russian, Serbian) refer to it as "podzemna(ya) temnitsa" (underground dungeon). Russian also has "ubliet(ka)", borrowed directly from French. An archaic word with a similar meaning in Bulgarian would be "zandan" (from Persian 'zindan' (prison), borrowed from Turkish).

    I know, it adds nothing new to your excellent post, but stil...

  8. I regret not learning some Deutsch as my interests have recently steered towards Scandinavian languages and Old English, but hey - there's still time, right?

    Certainly! And interesting enough, when I said I didn’t know too much German, I neglected to mention (which may be obvious to you and regular readers of Lingwë) that I read Old English and Old Norse pretty well too. A bit of Gothic and a couple of other ancient Germanic languages as well. In fact, it’s probably accurate to say I can read Old High German better than I can modern German, funny as that sounds.

    I know, it adds nothing new to your excellent post, but still ...

    Au contraire, I think it adds a lot. I was especially interested to learn that Russian borrowed the word directly from French (as did English). Sometimes one language has a particularly useful and unique word, and diverse other languages can’t help but see the value of it and borrow it wholesale. I like to find examples of that. :)