Stories behind Words: madeleine

Posted by on November 06, 2013

www.wordle.netIn his recent ‘Word roots and routes’ post, Jonathan explored the connections between the word voice and its numerous cognates. He noted that:

“Sometimes you hear, see, smell, taste or read something that evokes a certain feeling, emotion or image from your memory or experience.”

A famous case of evocation relates to the word madeleine. A madeleine is a kind of small buttery sponge cake from France (there’s a recipe and picture here), which gets its first (English) mention in a cookbook published in 1846. But when we look at corpus data, we find that at least half the examples of madeleine refer not specifically to the cake but to its “evocative” role in Marcel Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu (variously translated into English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). This huge novel was published in seven volumes over a period of 14 years, and its first part, known in English as Swann’s Way, appeared exactly 100 years ago, on 8th November 1913. So this is a good week for talking about madeleines.

In a key passage in the novel, the main character, Charles Swann, finds that the smell of a madeleine dipped in tea sets of a whole raft of memories from his childhood. The funny thing is that this episode seems to be familiar to people who have never read the novel – and who may not even know what a madeleine is. In the corpus data, we find occasional references to the cakes themselves:

Usually, we go in for the coffee, but who can resist one of their Proustian madeleines?

More often, though, the reference is to the whole scenario, where the cake acts as a trigger for old memories:

The process of going through customs and passport control provokes, like Proust’s madeleine, waves of memory of Soviet times past.
To Savoy, the opening bars of a 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll or R&B single are more of a temporal disruption device than Marcel Proust’s madeleine ever was.
For them, an authentic bagel, perfectly formed cannoli, or a properly turned-out tortilla can prove as evocative as Proust’s madeleines.

And many more in the same vein. There is usually a reference to Proust (or Proustian), but we find the occasional example where the original story is simply taken as read:

One thing has not changed…I find the smell of polish as palpable as in my first week: my own private madeleine.
I vaguely remember a splashy launch, consultation exercises in church halls, a website. Happily, this proved enough of a madeleine to get me directed to the Labour Party HQ.

A very evocative cultural reference!

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

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Comments (1)
  • It was only when I came to actually read the novel instead of reading about it (and no, I still haven’t finished, since you ask) that I discovered that the tea into which Marcel dips his cake is not common old Indian or even China tea but that quintessentially French beverage, lime blossom tea. A friend told me that traditionally-minded French people still gather the flowers to make it on Bastille Day, July 14th. I don’t suppose Proust had this in mind, but it does add yet another layer of subtlety to the whole episode.

    Posted by Liz on 8th November, 2013
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