Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense


Over the last few years I have been wondering about the origin of the French expression I have used as the title of this page. There are interesting suggestions of connections to words of Indian languages such as 'ni' which is a nominative particle, meaning that when it is used with a noun it makes the noun the subject of a verb. Also 'soit' seems possibly to be from the same origin as the first part of the Indian word, 'swagat', which is associated with good fortune. These things made me think a great deal about this familiar motto, which is used by the Knights of the Garter, a body of people closely involved with English royalty. It was worth considering if it is possible to account realistically for the origins of the motto in some language or languages other than French.

Particles of speech seem to have less strictly anchored meanings than names for objects and other nouns as languages develop and mix over the centuries and so 'qui' and 'y' could have developed from other parts of speech. In transforming the expression into something more Indian the overall form becomes reminiscent of modern sayings in Indian languages where frequently a proverb consists of two rhyming clauses.

I have to say that 'ni' isn't in what is the usual position for such a particle in modern Hindi, for example, but word order changes relatively quickly as languages develop.

It does seem that read in a certain way the motto might fit in the chain of development of modern Indian languages and there may be connections to Greek and to Celtic languages, which are other members of the same language group. In Greek, 'mal y' could be heard as 'malle' which is another form of 'malista' and means 'indeed' or 'certainly'. Related words are seen in other languages, such as German where an equivalent is 'mal'. In Swiss German the sound is more like that of a Chinese word with a similar meaning 'mou'. A sense like the Indian word, 'malik', might be involved, which has a range of meaning to do with ancestry and ancestral heroes and godliness, quite likely connected to the paleness of the ancient heroes of India because the word seems to derive from the same origin as 'milk'.

The sense in the eastern region of 'mal' would seem to be quite different from what it is in French, where it means 'bad'. Where people know that there is ambiguity in the word, such as on the trade routes through the Greek sphere of influence, it can be used as a way of helping to decide a question by reference to people's reaction. So, it will sometimes tell of someone's unspoken feelings about a difficult question and that seems to be a widely used technique in languages. Elsewhere I might discuss how inversions in meanings in speech seem to have driven or kept peoples apart, perhaps even being largely responsible for migrations in some cases. So, inversion of 'malle', an affirmative, to something meaning 'is bad' might have been involved in moving the originators of Gallic culture to the west. In Greek, then, 'malle' could be taken to have a sense akin to that of the whole motto.

Since I don't know when I might do a longer article on speech inversions and what they might suggest about disagreements between peoples it is worth noting here that 'Kurd' is close to being an inversion or, in a sense, an opposite of 'Turk' and the Ainu of Japan moved from the north of western Asia or Europe and may have been responsible for the fact that, in Japanese, 'nai' means 'yes' and 'iye' means 'no'. I mean that language difference may have contributed to the move away from the European language region since those two words from Japanese sound like opposites in English and closely related languages. Perhaps the disagreement between the originators of Gallic culture and people further to the east was to do with sexual behaviour which led the Gauls toward the culture for which the French are renowned today, a culture where the reliance on a mistress, for example, may even be taken as something of a sign of good character.

To account for 'pense' I need to split it into two parts and the fact that the second part, 'se', is a particle in Indian speech helped to start me on this whole line of enquiry. It means 'by' or 'with'. Perhaps 'pen' comes from an early word for 'head', the meaning in British speech. So 'pense' would mean 'in or by the head', referring to thinking. Perhaps 'se' could also have the same meaning as 'so' in English. 'Pan' is found in expressions, possibly also derived ultimately from the sense,'head', such as Pan-Hellenic, for example. Here the sense may be more like 'chief', the leader or head of a nation. Also the drug, pan, or pahn, in India seems sometimes to be used to attack the head of someone who is thought to be too intellectual or too interested in western culture.

Since the motto is clearly intended to bring into consideration a person's or a people's character, the fact that 'pani' means 'water' in modern Indian languages need not detract from the reasoning above but rather may add to the association suggested for 'mal' since it seems reasonable that a popular expression could develop from people's desire to comment on how characteristics are inherited from the father.

'Kai' means 'of' in Indian speech and I needed to replace the 'qui' of the French with this to find an equivalent that seems to work in a more Indian type of language. Then the expression becomes more like an Indian proverb with internal rhyme. Also I have taken 'ho' to mean 'have'. Indian speech makes it difficult to say whether 'ho' fits best as 'have' or 'is', since they are similar there. When considering characteristics of people, there is not much difference between 'have' or 'is'.

'Soit', as well as seeming to be in 'swagat' in Indian speech would, then, also be in 'swastika', a name of the Indian sign of good fortune, the hooked cross, adopted by the German National Socialists in the 20th century. Consideration of terms used as greetings, such as these two, suggest that there may be a question being asked, such that the person offering such a greeting is actually making an enquiry as to the intentions and character of the person to whom it is said and that seems to be true in many languages. Two examples are: English, 'welcome' and French, 'soyez bienvenue'. The latter carries with it an expression of doubt. From these considerations it seems that 'swagat' could derive from a greeting where the sense is 'would be good' where 'gat' means the same as the English, 'good' and the German, 'gut'. It would seem to help the sense of the transformation I have derived if 'swa' could mean 'self' and it is interesting that 'soi' means 'self' in French and 'soit' is subjunctive, carrying with it an inherent uncertainty. One word could be substituted for the other in such a greeting.

It is worth noting that in some variants of French, 'pen' is pronounced more like 'pan' and the end of 'pense' is pronounced strongly. It is reasonable to suggest that those variants are more Gallic that the modern national speech of France, which is probably more Frankish in many things. French is quite unlike other modern European languages in its nasality, a characteristic it shares with languages of India. In appearance some prominent French people of recent history, and it seems, more Gallic ones, have characteristics quite close to what may be observed in the Indian region. Heroes of the Gauls who fought Roman invaders are shown with prominent moustaches and although such fashions could be adopted or revived at any time there may be a connection to the fashions in facial hair in the southern Indian region in modern times.

That particles in speech seem to be relatively unstable in character helps to justify transforming the motto. So, I derived an expression which may have made sense poetically somewhere in the eastern lands and which at least provides a focus for the above discussion. The transformation works well if something like the Greek 'malle' was involved and that word could be linked in its origins to 'malik'. Considering the latter, all that was required to affect the transformation was elimination of the letter 'k'. Preceding a 'p' sound it would have been quite likely to be eliminated where misunderstanding of the expression occurred in transfer from one language group to another.

The possible early expression I derive is:

honi swa kai, malik pan se

It is phonetically essentially the same as the title of this article. With 'ho' meaning either 'have' or 'is' this would mean something like:

is or has self, by the milk of the fathers

Following this line of thinking, transformation of 'malik' into 'mal y' in French goes with the transformation of 'kai' meaning 'of' into 'qui' meaning 'who'. The structure of the expression would thus have been changed, from a pair of rhyming clauses to a single one. It is worth considering that the second part could be akin to the 'malak jhvh' of biblical writings where that expression conveys the sense, 'milk of the father', indicating a connection to ancestry. Please refer to Booklet 1 and Booklet 2 in the History folder.

In view of the likely correspondences outlined in this discussion it seems likely that originally the motto did not specifically refer to 'badness' and that it was not intended as a curse, which people would have it mean since it is usually translated as: 'Evil to him who evil thinks.' Understood in this new, more eastern, way it only seems to imply that whatever quality one derives from what one observes easily tends to have been found within oneself. Visitors to India may notice that Indian devotional art's representation of special figures seems to be done in this way. That is, images with a blank expression are shown to people, who may find different qualities for themselves in what they see.

Considering this wider understanding then, the motto could be taken to mean that, whether good or bad, qualities can be derived within the head. That could be an individual person's head and now it seems that the motto could include the possibility that it refers to the head or ancestors of a nation also and that it could include the understanding that what is in the head of a people can find its way into the whole of the people.

The story of the adoption of the motto by the Knights of the Garter is an interesting one. An English king, Edward III, was found to have a woman's garter on his leg and the Knights of the Garter were formed to help defend the king's reputation. The motto, then, is used with the sense of a curse on anyone who finds anything wrong with men wearing such items of women's clothing. That, then, is a guiding principle of the government system in the United Kingdom.

Andrew Burbidge 28/Aug/2003

Copyrightę2003Andrew Burbidge