Death to the doryphores - Life, 1 September 1941

Death to the Doryphores” is slogan of schoolchildren off for potato-bug catching. In France “doryphores” is nickname for food-grabbing Germans, who love potatoes.

from Vichy vs. France, by Richard de Rochemont – magazine Life, 1st September 1941




The French noun doryphore denotes the Colorado beetle, a yellow-and-black beetle native to America, whose larvae are highly destructive to potato plants.

This French word is from Greek δορυϕόρος (= doruphoros), meaning spear-carrier. The French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) so named this beetle in The Animal Kingdom (1817) for the following reason:

Doryphora [...] has the mesosternum pointed like a horn.

During the Second World War, the French applied this name to the German occupying forces. The American magazine Life of 16th September 1940 published Paris under the Swastika, in which the American journalist Sherry Mangan had written, while in Paris on 8th August:

The Germans are referred to ironically as “guests,” though the French “les invités” conveys an additional subtle overtone of reference to the way in which reactionary French officers smoothed the guests’ path. Another favorite term is “ces messieurs,” pronounced with elaborate, cutting politeness. But the best term which the French, always wittiest in adversity, have hit upon is “les doryphores.” Doryphores are insects which spread the potato blight and the term beautifully sums up the distaste of the French for seeing their guests perpetually stuffing themselves with boiled potatoes.

La Lettre de la France Combattante (1942) contains the following:

In Northern France men call them doryphores, potato beetles, the foreign pest that destroys the crops. To the South they are locusts, swarming greedy insects that turn a rich land into a desert.

In 1952, Sir Harold George Nicolson (1886-1968), English diplomat, author, diarist and politician, introduced doryphore (spelt doriphore) into English to denote a pedantic and annoyingly persistent critic, a sense unknown in French. He first used the word in the British magazine The Spectator of 21st August 1952, in his column Marginal Comment, but without defining it:

In every age and every clime writers have grumbled about the small vocabulary of their native language and have denounced the “patrii sermonis egestas*.” In English, reputed a rich language, the epithets of praise are meagre and colourless, whereas those expressing disapproval are varied, incisive and rich. [...] Often have I tried to supplement my vocabulary by inventing words, such as “couth,” or “doriphore,” or “hypoulic,” feeling that it is the duty as well as the pastime of a professional writer to make two words bloom where only one bloomed before. [...]
The only people that I know of who have created for themselves a varied vocabulary to designate the gradations of dementia are the Germans. Being both neurotic and precise, they have provided a tidy little packet of words with which to analyse their friends. [...] What a lovely word is that word “wahn,” as in “irrwahn,” representing illusions that arise, not from malice or frustration, but when one really believes in fairies or Dr. Goebbels and yearns for the impossible and undefinable to occur! [...]
Would some active doriphore suggest to me a good English equivalent for that useful and attractive word “wahn”?

(* The Latin phrase patrii sermonis egestas, which can be translated as my country’s pauper speech, is from De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (circa 94-circa 55 BC).)

On 16th October of that year, Nicolson explained in the same magazine:

Several people have written to me regarding the word “doriphore,” asking me to explain more exactly what I mean by this half-French, half-Hellenic, noun. [...] I used the expression to designate a special type of pest or parasite that hangs as a louse upon the locks of literature. I needed a word descriptive of the exotic, un-English, origin of the animal, and one which, by its very sound, would suggest the tortuous persistence of its ways. I needed a word which, by its varied associations, would indicate the insensitiveness of the beast, its powers of penetration, its habit of feeding upon the leaves of others, its curious combination of the barbaric with the cultured, the ruthless with the epicene, the pedantic with the unimaginative. I needed something, moreover, to describe the philistinism of the pest, its destructive purposes, its crass vaunting, its inability to distinguish between the letter and the spirit, its passion for rules, regulations and formulas. I wanted a word suggestive of the questing prig.
[...] The doriphore, as I have said, is the type of questing prig, who derives intense satisfaction from pointing out the errors of others. His mind is mechanical and precise; his memory functions with the dispiriting regularity of an electronic brain; his self-assertiveness is an agony to all modest men; when he is not busy with his cross-word puzzles, he approaches the works of others as something to be nibbled and consumed. It is not, however, the mind of the doriphore that distresses me, so much as his soul. Nobody need be annoyed if, in the quietude of his study, with his books of reference around him, the doriphore spends happy hours checking whether an event occurred on March 22nd, 1767 or on March 19th. What is so abominable about the doriphore is that he is unable to keep his accuracy to himself; without a moment’s reflection, without permitting his conceit to be checked for one instant by any sense of proportion, he will immediately sit down at his desk and write a letter to The Times Literary Supplement, pointing out that the Professor ought to have said March 19th and not March 22nd.
[...] I ask all doriphores to examine their own consciences. Are they positive that, in nibbling so ardently at the leaves, they have not forgotten the purpose or the succulence of the potato that rests below? Are they positive that the emotions of self-esteem aroused within them by this un-apollonian activity are creditable emotions? Are they positive that, in displaying to the public their own pedantic philistinism, they are not actuated by a desire to suggest that they are themselves superior in knowledge and precision to those at whom they nibble?

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