Monday, 10 September 2012

Gordon Bennett - What a Strange Address!

English people finding themselves on the Avenue Gordon Bennett - probably when attending the French Open tennis tournament or visiting the Serres d'Auteuil - must smile in surprise when they see one of the street signs.

For those not familiar with the name, 'Gordon Bennett' has been used as an expression of surprise in England (and if anyone can tell me if it's used elsewhere in the world I'd be interested to know) for at least 80 years. Although the expression is probably dying out now, its origin remains one of the mysteries of the English language.

Is there a connection to this Gordon Bennett, labelled here as an American journalist who lived from 1795 - 1872? The answer is probably not - but it might refer to his identically-named son!


A quick visit to Wikipedia will tell you that James Gordon Bennett Sr was the "editor and publisher of the New York Herald and a major figure in the history of American newspapers" . He had though been born in Scotland, eventually emigrating to the Americas when in his 20s. A self-made man, he put years of failure behind him when starting the Herald, a paper which eventually boasted the highest-circulation in America.

The city of Paris calls him a "pionnier du journalisme moderne" in its listings of street nomenclature, but many have said that his pioneering was actually of a sensationalist, tabloid style of journalism.

His son, James Gordon Bennett Jr, took over the running of the paper, but became more famous for his wild living. Born into what had become a rich family, he spent his life - and money - enjoying adventures and luxury. His name though is remembered today for three reasons. He was a promoter of certain sporting events, some of which, including an international hot-air balloon race, still exist today.

Secondly, he is credited by the Guiness Book of World Records as committing the 'Greatest Engagement Faux Pas'. Legend or otherwise, it is said that his engagement to Caroline May was broken off during the party in which it was being celebrated, after Bennett - having obviously consumed too much alcohol - urinated in a fireplace in front of the guests.

Finally, such tales have led many to believe that it is this Gordon Bennett who is celebrated in the expression. The thinking behind this is that stories of his behaviour would naturally provoke shock, but it is more probable that the expression actually stems from the very Londonesque 'Gor blimey' (meaning God blind me).


There are however here two secondary mysteries. Why is Gordon Bennett celebrated in Paris, and why is such a short and seemingly insignificant road classed as an Avenue?

Although the street celebrates the father, it is probably the son who was behind the initiative. Bennett Jr was educated in France, lived for a long time in Paris and was behind the opening of the Paris Herald, a forerunner of the International Herald Tribune. He later also died in France and is buried in the Cimitière de Passy. During his time in the French capital, he must have had many acquaintances in positions of power, and managed to pursuade somebody that a street name in honour of his father would be a good thing.

The street runs through the Bois de Boulogne, and was originally situated in Boulogne rather than Paris (which also explains the older and non-standard road signs at one end). Although we have become accustomed to linking the word Avenue with prestige, in this instance it expresses not its importance but rather its rural nature.

Although a dictionary definition of an avenue is a large tree-lined road leading up to an important building, Wikipedia also labels an avenue as being "un chemin frayé dans la nature" (a path cleared through nature).

The road may be in a quiet corner of Paris, but it is certainly one with an interesting name!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi - the phrase is also used in Australia, but that may be a left over from English heritage. Thanks for the info! And for your blog - it's great reading.

cynbook said...

Very interesting article. Thanks.

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