Before yesterday’s Krewe du Vieux parade, I saw a cat enter a bar (Molly’s), plop itself up on a barstool and get served a drink. And that wasn’t even the strangest thing I saw last night.
The more one looks at the word, the more it begins to morph into something entirely different from the sense it transmits on first tapping the tympanic. Biv—oo—ack. Obviously French, non? Let’s dig a little deeper into the etymology, just as I dug a little deeper in my backyard, under that beautiful pine tree, to set up my own private encampment.
The OED is nice, and thorough, and all that, but I’m going with Etymonline, whose entry is succinct without being rash. In short, yes, bivouac is a French word, dating from the 17th century, but why stop there? Nothing good ever ends up in French hands. So, let’s travel back to the time when the Swiss were a military powerhouse across the Continent, a time when Umbergers were as common as cuckoo clocks and bivouacking actually meant something.
The word bivouac ultimately derives from a dialectal Swiss German word, beiwacht (loosely bei ”double” or “additional” + wacht ”watch” or “guard.”) In the beginning, a beiwacht was a group of people who helped out the regular nightwatchman (I’ll name him Rudi — nice profile pic — after my distant relative) in times of crisis or consternation. Whenever Rudi would turn his back in the face of attack, the beiwacht would be there to back him up.
Is that a Victorinox? I bet it’s a Victorinox.
When the French decided to steal, as they are wont to do, they pilfered words. In this instance, they transmogrified beiwacht from its sensible, neutral Swiss roots into a vowelly terror — really, French, three vowels in a row? Etymonline dates the word’s sense of an “outdoor camp” to 1853 without attribution, which is good enough for me, and it’s not too much of a stretch to see how the sense of the actual group of watchmen (by the way, who watches the Swiss watchmen?*) turned into the place where those watchmen camped out.
Now, back to my boyhood. My favorite things in the world when I was 5 were the Army, Ninja Turtles, and baseball. Focusing on the first of the Holy Trinity, I daily dressed out in camouflage, from my grandfather’s old bomber hat to a pair of overlarge surplus socks. Most often, I could be seen gamboling about with a sub-machine gun, ratatatatting at the liriope and nandina bushes, chasing ignorant armies clashing by day. My backyard was a militant junior’s dream, with grand, antebellum pecan trees watching over me and hidden hazards like an old well shaft providing just enough thrill to slake my thirst for adventure.
Where else for a young soldier to rest his bones but under a Georgia pine, the branches a canopy from the midafternoon sun? I would gather twigs for a fire unseen, exhaust the supply of my canteen, and lay myself down on needles green. Though I knew not yet by what name to call it, the bower, its shelter and solace, became my childhood bivouac.
*Obviously, the cuckoos.