- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) squirrel fur
Most popular on HH this week was a bit of wordy trivia that—well, sparked quite a bit of debate. On Monday, we tweeted the fact that in French writer Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon (1697), Cinderella’s slippers were actually made of vair (“squirrel fur”), not verre (“glass”).
Centuries of crossed wires later, and we’ve ended up those don’t-dance-too-hard-or-you’ll-lacerate-your-toes glass slippers, instead of those cosy-but-synthetic-fibre-would-be-more-preferable squirrel fur ones.
To say that tweet opened quite an etymological can of worms here at HH is a bit of an understatement. Emails, DMs, and replies poured in, with opinions ranging from impressed incredulity, to calls of utterly misinformed BS. The truth, however, seems to lie somewhere in between.
In this instance, HH deferred to the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, whose definition of the expression glass slipper duly includes a note explaining that it began life as a “mistranslation of [the] French pantoufle en vair, fur slipper, mistaken for verre, glass”.
But as many of you pointed out, a little more snooping (or rather, Snopesing) around online will bring up a nicely informed argument for the complete opposite: namely, that this is all just an old wives’ tale, and Cinderella’s slippers have always been glass, even in Perrault’s version. So what’s the truth?
Well, there are a few hurdles to overcome before we land at the truth. Firstly, one of the counterarguments given by Snopes (and others) is that by the time Perrault wrote his Histoires ou contes du temps passé avecdes moralités (“Stories or Tales of Olden Times with Morals”), vair was already a very outdated word that he would never have even thought to use. But that just isn’t the case: vair is actually recorded in written French right through to the mid nineteenth century, and will even be familiar to logophilic Francophones to this day.
Secondly, according to some accounts Perrault reportedly did use the word verre in his original text, not vair; the confusion between the two was supposedly a later invention, emerging from essays and debates written by subsequent writers and translators, including Honoré de Balzac.
Throwing yet another spanner into the works are those dastardly QI Elves, who have gone on record to explain that in a “medieval” version of the Cinderella story—on which Perrault based his version—her slipper was indeed made of vair, not verre. (Alas, we’ve not been able to verify that here at HH, but hey, those Elves know a thing or two...)
All in all, perhaps what we have is the following state of affairs.
In the original European version of the tale (whatever or wherever it may be) the slippers were indeed made of fur, not glass (which, all other arguments aside, would certainly make more sense). The centuries of verbal versions of the story that followed presumably introduced some confusion, with two different versions eventually emerging: one honouring the original fur-lined slippers, the other featuring the less comfortable verre ones.
As vair became a less familiar (though no less valid) word, presumably the verre version of the story won through, and it was this that Perrault recorded in his collection. Cinderella, ultimately, has been dicing with toe carnage ever since—though she should in fact have been lounging in the comfort of squirrel fur instead.
Is this the case? It’s certainly plausible, and it would go some way towards satisfying all the evidence available; all it would take would be for an early version of the text, rightly mentioning Cinderella’s pantoufle en vair, to emerge to clinch the argument.
But until we can verify that, alas it’s all in the lap of the gods. Or the godmothers, as the case may be.