Napoleon’s defeats

we all possess Napoleon’s features …

This year, I reread Leo Tolstoy War and Peace, for the fifth time. War and Peace is one of my favourite books, and since I first read it at high school, I reread it regularly. This time, I reread it so quickly, I was so absorbed in the narrative, that I turned the last page regretting that there were four volumes only. I would have enjoyed reading twenty of them!

While I was regretting War and Peace was so short, my inner linguist started wondering about expressions related to Napoleon, in any language that springs to mind.

Any language in this case meant English and French, and the two expressions refer to Napoleon’s defeats.

In English, you can meet or face your Waterloo, the expression popularised not so much by the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon indeed did surrender, but by the song Waterloo by Abba, which won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.

Just as I was humming Oh, oh, oh, oh, Waterloo / Finally facing my Waterloo, a French colleague commented on a committee she participated in, with the words c’est la Bérézina. The expression means disastrous and disorganised matter, and refers to another Napoleon’s defeat, this time by the river Berezina, at the hands of Russian army.

Strangely, nothing in Russian came to my mind. There are obviously quotes: Napoleon was a popular figure in the 19th century Russia, which is reflected by ambivalent feelings of the War and Peace male protagonists towards him.

Alexander Pushkin mentions Napoleon in his Eugene Onegin: мы все глядим в Наполеоны (we all aspire to be Napoleons).

We all possess Napoleon’s features;

The millions of two-legged creatures

Are only instruments and tools;

But today, the most famous Napoleon in Russian is a mille-feuille pastry that is called наполеон, although the etymology is unclear, perhaps it is a corruption from Neapolitan, Naples being famous for its pastry.