Faire le mariole: A French expression you may see today

One of the suspects in the Bataclan trial has been described as acting le mariole in court  –  we look at the origins of this phrase

9 September 2021

Learn French words and expressions you may hear in the news today Pic: The Connexion

Almost six years after the November 2015 terrorist attacks at the Bataclan concert hall and nearby venues in Paris, the trial of 20 suspects finally began yesterday (September 8) at Paris’s Palais de Justice.

Key defendant Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the only surviving member of the group directly involved in the attacks, refused to answer questions, instead choosing to provoke the jury and audience.

You may hear that he decided to faire le mariole, a phrase which means to make a show of oneself, usually in a foolish manner. However, it is sometimes also translated as being a ‘smart alec’.

Here, we explain the various potential origins of the phrase.

The most common explanation relates to Dominique Gay Mariole, a soldier of Napoleon’s imperial guard who was nicknamed l’Indomptable (the indomitable one) due to his large stature. He also had the reputation of being a prankster. For example, it is said that, at the moment of presenting arms, Mariole held a cannon on his shoulder rather than a rifle. This supposedly inspired the expression and gave it the meaning of making a show of oneself.

Other sources claim that the expression originates from the Italian word mariolo, which translates to ‘rascal’ or ‘rogue’. Apparently, the word entered the French language around the sixteenth century and the expression evolved from there. 

Alternatively, some argue that the expression was actually inspired by the Virgin Mary, or more precisely small images of her called marioles which were popular in the 13th century. It is said that the term was at the time used to refer to people who tried to give the impression that they were more pious than they really were and evolved over time to describe any sort of attention-seeking behaviour.

Another explanation is that the word mariole derives from marionette, or puppet. Puppet shows often feature dramatic storylines and exaggerated ‘characters’, which would explain why faire le mariole would imply making a fool of oneself.

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