Homing in on Harlequin

Etymology ideas about the famous old time clown, by Talia Felix, Assistant Editor.

Harlequin. These days, who even knows what that is? The colorful diamond pattern one sometimes sees as a Mardi Gras print? The minor character in Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Chrtistmas?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.etymonline.com/columns/post/honing-in-on-harlequin
1 Like

One piece of the Hellequin etymology that I don’t see mentioned in your piece but I have seen elsewhere is Walter Map’s story of King Herla (Herlacyning in Anglo Saxon). This is a combination of a visit to the Dwarf King’s Hall where hundreds of years pass after just a night’s feasting (a fairly common motif) combined with that of the Wild Hunt (King Herla and his retainers cannot get off their horses without turning to dust, and become the Wild Hunt).
This reference is only important because Walter Map lived in the 12th century, so it’s a very early potential reference to Herlacyning/Harlequin.
It never made much sense to me that this evolved into the Commedia dell’arte figure. Seems much more likely that that came from some other background.


I have heard the Herla Cyning etymology, but it seemed too improbable to even be worth a mention. No one who brings it up can seem to propose any reason for it other than that they sound similar. There are no references to a Harlequin character that early, nor does any of the Herla story match details of the early versions of the commedia character. But the kicker is that Herla is English/Saxon and the earliest Harlequin references are all in romance languages. By comparison, unlikely as Old French Hellequin seems, it at least is French and so is the earliest known reference to Harlequin.

Unless I were to see a reference to Harlequin that made an Anglo Saxon origin seem at all possible, I’d say it’s not an idea that needs to be spread around.

I completely agree that the lineage from Hellequin to the commedia dell’arte Harlequin is improbable.

However if you are going to mention the Wild Hunt, then mentioning Herla (which was probably a gloss
for Erlking) is necessary. Ignoring it because it is a Saxon word, misses the linguistic and political geographies of the time.
Walter Map claimed to be from Wales, although like Geoffrey of Monmouth, a near contemporary, he is likely to have been from Norman family in the Marches and we don’t really know if he even spoke A.S. or Welsh.
He was educated at the University of Paris and was a courtier for Henry II, indeed in 1175 he was part of an ambassadorial party to the King of France.
Also remember that at the time the Plantagenet/Angevin holdings included most of the west of what is now France. The court of Henry II, was mostly based in Anger (the capital of Anjou). It was also at the beginning of the time when jongleurs would go around telling stories they’d picked up - especially Arthurian legends, which were as popular in France as Britain.
So I think it’s easier to see migration of the story with the associated Anglo-Saxon name into Old French than you might imagine.
Incidentally, De nugis curialium, the document where he mentions Herla cyning was written in Latin, as were most things at the time; again reducing the barriers to flow between Germanic and Romance languages.

Hellequin is the “best” theory despite not being good, so it gets a mention. Hurla is not a good theory and has no reason to be mentioned.

Where did Hellequin come from in the first place?

Yes it does seem a stretch to link it back further. However, the reason to link it to Herla cyning, or Erlking or Ellekonge (Danish) is because of the Wild Hunt motif. If that weren’t present that it would be dubious in the extreme.

But from the first time the Harlequin character is known to have appeared, there is nothing about him even remotely related to horsemen, a hunt, or anything else pertaining to the Wild Hunt. The idea that looking for connections to the Wild Hunt might lead to the origin of the name seems to me like intentionally following the wrong track, unless some (fairly miraculous?) evolution or transformation of a certain stock character from a Wild Hunt participant into a bumbling comic can be traced through old descriptions of dramas.

1 Like

Hellequin is a French term. This is the Middle English Compendium’s entry, which derives it from Medieval Latin, and I’d say it’s probably Germanic before that. Hurlewain - Middle English Compendium
The Hellequin theory about Harlequin appears by the early 19th century in English and might be originally from some German texts that I don’t have the ability to read. By the 18th century Harlequin had become a magical clown/fairy character and I can understand why people who didn’t have easy access to 300 year old Italian play scripts might have assumed he was always such a magical character, and thus tried to link him to mythological figures.
But, the Wild Hunt motif doesn’t have anything to do with the language, and would only be valuable to pursue if Hellequin seemed like a plausible explanation for the etymology of Harlequin. It’s really only worth mentioning at all because enough other sources have mentioned it, and then only to explain why it’s not a likely explanation; I’ve already explained why it doesn’t make sense.

1 Like

I’m in complete agreement that the Harlequin character in commedia dell’arte has zero to do with the Wild Hunt. And throughout (and well before I read this post), I’ve felt that linking the name back to Old French Hellequin is very dubious.

I think my point (if there was one!) is that if you are going to mention Hellequin and the Wild Hunt at all, (as the original post did), then the further link to Herla/the Erlking. is actually much less of a stretch than from Harlequin (the fool) to Hellequin (which doesn’t really read as particularly French to me).

(Incidentally, re-reading the original post, I think what really prompted me to respond was the attempt to link Hellequin to Herr/Lord and thus to Woden. This to me is much more suspect than a link back to Herla/Erlking!)

Personally I think the etymologist who linked the Commedia dell’arte character back to an Old French demonic character must have had too much to drink on a Friday night when he came up with that idea!


All of that makes good sense to me. Regarding your last sentence: similar-sounding but unrelated words do tend to lead to folk etymologies, and maybe too many drinks can turn a professional into a folk.

See? Now I've discovered the true origin of the excessive-drinking sense of "folked up"! (The modern spelling conflating it with a different word must be due to lack of awareness of this connection.) :grin:

1 Like