If you are a life-long language learner like myself, up until recently you may never have heard the word ‘revenant’ before. Then towards the end of 2015 things changed. This was due to the movie The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who finally won his long-awaited Oscar for this role. I haven’t seen this film yet, though from the trailers I know that our protagonist, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has to endure great hardship and that in some way or another, a bear is also involved.
But where does this word come from and what does it really mean?
Don’t worry, it’s not just us language learners who don’t have a clue about this word, which has gained popularity (and Google hits) at an incredible rate. It seems that many native English speakers face the same problem. This is probably the reason why a dictionary definition is shown underneath the title on the cover of the original book, and why there was a special cinema poster featuring the meaning of this word as well.
Of course it is not surprising that since the release (and success) of this film, the number of articles discussing the possible meanings of this word has skyrocketed. It was one of the new words added to the online edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in March 2016.
The word first appeared in English in the early 19th century and is of French, though originally of Latin, origin. The word ‘revenant’ is the noun of the present participle of the French verb ‘revenir’. The prefix ‘re-’ means ‘back’ and the base form of the word ‘venir’ means ‘to come’. However, there seems to be some disagreement about the meaning of the word – different dictionaries define a revenant as someone who has died and returned, or as someone who has returned as if from death. Our own dictionary definition is:
‘a person who has returned, especially one who is thought to have come back from the dead’
So is this word used to describe people who were merely thought dead or who have actually died and then returned? It seems to have been used both ways.
While Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film had a very narrow escape from, among other things, the aforementioned bear, many of the characters in Les Revenants – a French TV series – are previously deceased people who return to their small mountain town to continue with their normal lives as if nothing had happened. In fact the TV show is better known in English as The Returned, though this is really no less ambiguous to English speakers than The Revenants would be.
English is of course notorious for stealing (I mean borrowing) words from other languages. A huge proportion of English words, just like ‘revenant’, are of French origin. As a Hungarian, I am pleased to say that several Hungarian words have made it into the English language as well.
There are also several Hungarian dog breeds, such as the komondor, kuvasz, vizsla and puli, that English-speaking dog lovers may be familiar with. Komondors and pulis are rather odd-looking creatures, very similar to moving mops. Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, is the happy owner of a puli called Beast who even has his own Facebook account!
Are there many or any words in your mother tongue that are used in English?
About the author: a keen cinema-goer, native Hungarian Zsuzsanna Felvégi was an assistant editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department between 2015 and 2016. She worked mainly on dictionary apps and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website.
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