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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) too extraordinary to be believed

One of last month’s HH Words of the Day—the adjective rocambolesque, defined as “too fanciful or extraordinary to believe”—ended up proving very popular on Twitter:

So here’s a bit more about it. Rocambolesque (pronounced “ro-cam-buh-lesk”) derives from Rocambole (pronounced “rock-um-bole”), the name of a fictional character who appeared in a series of stories in the mid nineteenth century, written by the French novelist Pierre-Alexis Ponson du Terrail.

In the stories, Rocambole begins as a young orphan adopted by an evil old woman, Madam Fipart, who runs an inn frequented by members of the Paris underworld. Originally destined to join his adopted mother on the wrong side of the law, Rocambole eventually turns good and with the help of a colourful array of sidekicks and apprentices begins fighting crime in a series of unbelievable adventures.

The Rocambole stories were originally published in instalments in the old Parisian newspaper La Patrie; the first, Les Drames de Paris, appeared in in 1857.

great rocambole novel cover origin of rocambolesque

Collections of these early tales quickly became best-sellers, and were followed by a series of novels, and even a three-part silent film released in 1914. After Terrail’s death in 1871, other writers took up where he had left off, and began contributing their own Rocambole stories to the canon.

The word rocambolesque—relating to or describing madcap adventures like his—first appeared in its native French in 1898, and as his stories became better known outside France, the word fell into occasional use in English in 1935. Sadly, Rocambole is considerably less well known today as he was among turn-of-the-century fans of adventure stories, and as his popularity has waned so too did use of the brilliant word he inspired.

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