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Words new to me: тальма

February 6, 2015

François-Joseph Talma (1763-1826) was a French actor who, Wikipedia tells me, knew Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David, and Joseph Chénier, inspired Alexandre Dumas, and was credited by Nietzsche with formulating the idea that “what is meant to have the effect of truth must not be true.”

Petr Viazemskii wrote a long obituary of Talma in 1827, and I think Aleksandr Vel’tman used Talma as a character in Virginia, or A Journey to Russia (Виргиния, или Поездка в Россию, 1837), which Belinskii describes in a review.

But the actor’s last name also turned into a common noun in Russian, meaning a kind of sleeveless cloak worn by women. In part 1, chapter 9 of Leskov’s The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), Dolinskii is about to help Dora into her tal’ma when he throws it aside so he can go save a small child. There’s another тальма in the “woman’s outer garment” meaning in this 1911 poem by Igor’ Severianin. I suppose someone once compared a woman wearing this kind of cloak to a famous picture of Talma in a similar costume, and the joke caught on, but of course I don’t know.

The actor’s name comes up more often than the clothing term in a search on lib.ru, just as if you search for “Mae West” you’ll get the person more often than the lifejacket (which makes the OED).

The last name Тальма, being French, is stressed on the last syllable, and there was apparently a time when lowercase тальма was prescriptively supposed to have that stress too, but it seems to have quickly become тАльма. The thing and the person it’s named for are then a minimal pair for stress.

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