I just stumbled across the expression in Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme of Monsieur Jourdain having been speaking prose for all of his life.

As far as I understand this is used today as a metaphor (correct rhetoric figure?) for if someone is doing something of high achievement without noticing himself. The point which I do not understand is the bit that it's "prose" what he is speaking. According to my knowledge prose is anything except the bound language of lyrics. So it includes the normal everyday spoken language, doesn't it? In this understanding I would think that the figure of Monsieur Jourdain discovering that he spoke prose is a mere joke without noticing is that he actually just discovered an euphemism for a plain common thing, but his fascination for the sound of the euphemic expression is larger than his understanding of the meaning.

Apparently my understanding is in mismatch with the common usage, so I wonder what am I missing?


The term "prose" is now generally understood in the same way as described by the Maître de philosophie in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, i.e. language that "sounds natural and uses grammatical structure" and "the opposite of verse" (quoted from LiteraryDevices.com). Hence, on the surface level, any normal language that is not verse is prose. According to the Maître de philosophie in the play, this includes oral language (since he appears to agree with Mr Jourdain's discovery that he is speaking in prose). However, some definitions of prose exclude spoken language, e.g. LiteraryTerms.net, which says, "Prose is just non-verse writing".

Depending on which definition of prose you accept, the joke in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme has three levels:

  1. Mr Jourdain discovers that he uses normal language that is not verse. This is hardly something to be proud of, but he is impressed that this deserves to be called "prose". (See for example, the emphasis on "prose", when Jourdain says, 'Quoi ? quand je dis : « Nicole, apportez-moi mes pantoufles, et me donnez mon bonnet de nuit », c’est de la prose ?': https://youtu.be/jJMuzRxE5sA?t=419.) This is the joke that people allude to when they say they are like Mr Jourdain, i.e. they have been doing something that is perfectly ordinary and then discover that there is an impressive term for it.
  2. Mr Jourdain discovers that his ordinary language is called "prose", which is a term that is usually reserved for literary language that is not verse. (As mentioned above, there is no consensus about this.) According to this interpretation, both Mr Jourdain and the "Maître de philosophie" look ridiculous, because they don't understand the difference between ordinary spoken language and literary prose. (The "Maître de philosophie" is also a comical figure, after all.)
  3. Finally, "prose" can also mean language that is banal or commonplace (the English Wikipedia article does not mention this, but the French one does). Thus, Mr Jourdain's pride at discovering that he has been speaking prose for forty years without realising it makes him look doubly ridiculous: from his own point of view he is proud of doing something that is worthy of the literary terms "prose", while all his life he has been saying utterly banal things. In fact, he even provides examples (see the quote in the first list item). Most readers and viewers of the play never get this double (or triple) entendre.
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  • Thank you very much @user800! So my understanding matches with your 1 and 2 quite well while 3 makes it even worse. From that I would conclude that when ever a reference to Jourdains discovery is given in case when someone is doing something of really high achievment without knowing, its actually a misrepresentation. Would you agree? – Rudi_Birnbaum Oct 24 '19 at 18:44
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    @Rudi_Birnbaum When people say they are a bit like Jourdain, they are unaware of the third meaning; otherwise the comparison would not have gained the popularity it has ;-) Instead of calling it misrepresentation, I would say it is unawareness of other meaning of the term "prose" (or of Molière's subtlety). – Tsundoku Oct 25 '19 at 9:15
  • I don't think the point about different definitions of prose (including your second and third interpretation) is relevant. The text itself defines prose by a binary distinction: "anything that isn't poetry is prose." Any literary theory that isn't known in 17th century France is out of place here – b a Oct 30 '19 at 23:13
  • I'd like some evidence for (3). I suspect that the meaning “language that is banal of commonplace” is more recent than Molière's play, and probably partly inspired by it. Littré (compiled in the mid-19th century) lists it as a “neologism” and the earliest citation is from 1796, more than a century after Molière. Furthermore, it's mostly only the adjective prosaïque that has a mildly derogatory meaning, at least in modern French, and not the noun prose (but of course an implied pun is plausible). – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Jul 13 at 22:05
  • @Gilles'SO-stopbeingevil' I have been meaning to look at this answer again and improve it based on older dictionaries. Thanks for the reminder. – Tsundoku Jul 13 at 22:14

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