The Grammarphobia Blog

Mrs. Elton’s ridicule

Q: Why did Jane Austen call Mrs. Elton’s handbag a “ridicule” instead of a “reticule”? Was it a mistake? Is that why many modern editions of Emma have changed “ridicule” to “reticule”?

A: No, it wasn’t a mistake. Both words referred to a woman’s small handbag when Austen was writing the novel in the Regency England of the early 19th century.

In fact, the use of “ridicule” for a handbag showed up in English two years before the similar use of “reticule,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says both terms apparently came from French, where ridicule was “probably a punning alteration of réticule.”

“The ridicule (or reticule) was introduced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as an alternative to pockets, which were not suited to the high-waisted Empire-style dresses fashionable at the time,” the OED says.

The ultimate source of “reticule” is rēticulum, classical Latin for a small meshwork bag or a little net, according the dictionary, while “ridicule” ultimately comes from rīdiculum, Latin for a humorous piece or a joke.

The earliest Oxford example of “ridicule” in the handbag sense appears as the caption on a print, dated 1799, in the British Museum’s collection of prints and drawings.

The next citation is from the February 1804 issue of the Lady’s Monthly Museum, an English magazine: “A Kerseymere Spencer of the same Colour, with Tippet. Purple ridicule.”

And here’s one we found in the January 1812 issue of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, an illustrated British periodical: “Pink embroidered ridicule.”

The earliest OED example of “reticule” used this way is from An Irish Peer on the Continent (1801), by the Irish diarist Catherine Wilmot:

“We have not seen Bonaparte yet, except adorning ‘Reticules’ (which are a species of little Workbag worn by the Ladies, containing snuff-boxes, Billet-doux, Purses, Handkerchiefs, Fans, Prayer-Books, Bon-bons, Visiting tickets, and all the machinery of existence).” We’ve expanded the OED citation.

As for Emma, it was published in three volumes on Dec. 23, 1815 (with 1816 as the date on the title page). The reference to Mrs. Elton’s handbag is on page 296 of the third volume.

You’re right that many modern editions of Emma have changed “ridicule” to “reticule.” Our Oxford Illustrated edition, based on early versions, uses “ridicule,” but our George G. Harrap edition uses “reticule.”

We imagine that editors at publishing houses who changed “reticule” to “ridicule” erroneously believed she had either made a mistake or used an inappropriately slangy term.

For example, Reginald Brimley Johnson, who edited an 1892 collection of Austen novels, left in “ridicule” but added this footnote: “a corruption of ‘reticule’—Johnson’s Dictionary.”

(Samuel Johnson didn’t mention this use of “ridicule” or “reticule” in A Dictionary of the English Language. The usage showed up in writing dozens of years after his dictionary was published in 1755.)

Although the use of “ridicule” for a handbag is now considered obsolete or regional, according to the OED, the dictionary’s citations suggest that the term was standard English when Austen was writing Emma.

We assume that Austen was familiar with both words, but deliberately chose “ridicule,” because of its double meaning, as the better term for describing the gaudy purple and gold handbag carried by the vulgar Mrs. Elton.

Finally, all this talk about “reticule” and “ridicule” reminds us of the polysyllabic definition of “network” in Johnson’s dictionary: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”

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