Although I’ve often mentioned old forms of words, I don’t think I’ve ever made an obsolete word the subject of a post—until now. I was in an online dictionary stroll recently when I came across the English word bonnibel, which I immediately understood, and which was defined as ‘a handsome girl’; it was also marked obsolete. Wordnik gives this example from an English translation of the Arabian Nights: “Who shall save me from love of a lovely gazelle, Brighter browed than the sunshine, my bonnibel!” Less poetically, an Internet search reveals that in our own times Bonnibel has become a brand of women’s shoes.

The reason bonnibel is understandable is that English still has the Scottish adjective bonny or bonnie ‘pretty’ as well as the female name Bonnie. English also has belle, as in belle of the ball, along with the female name Belle. The online dictionary confirmed my ad hoc etymology of bonnibel as having come from French bonne et belle ‘good and beautiful.’ Of course a Spanish speaker has no trouble making the modest translation to buena y bella.

In a case of two for the price of one, the dictionary I consulted also listed bellibone, which I can’t help thinking sounds like bellybutton, and which consists of the same two elements that make up bonnibel but in reverse order; the French original this time was belle et bonne.

Let me close with something that the last sentence dredged up from memory but that I haven’t thought about in a long time: when I lived in Honduras in 1968 and 1969, there was a brand of jelly from Guatemala called Ana Belly, which not only rhymes with jelly but is presumably a clever respelling of the Annabelle Lee made famous in the Poe poem. Yet another Internet search confirms that the company is still in business. ¡Qué bueno! ¡Qué bello! ¡Qué buenibello!

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jun 24, 2012 @ 12:43:45

    You probably have no reason to know that one of the most enduring and most popular manufacturers of cosmetics – especially for teens and young women – is Bonne Belle. There no direct etymological connection, as the company was founded by a fellow named Jesse Bell and named for his daughter Bonnie.

    Still, I’d be surprised if Bonnie’s name wasn’t chosen to go with “Bell”, and in that way the connection exists.

    And of course we can’t forget bonbel cheese, which I just learned is a type of cheese and not a brand name.

    It seems marketing sorts just find some words both bonne et belle!


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jun 26, 2012 @ 06:41:26

    Thanks for the information about Bonne Belle. You’re right that I’d never heard of it, unlike bonbel cheese, which I remember from childhood. The brand we used to buy back then (and which still exists) was La Vache Qui Rit, which is to say The Laughing Cow. The French name always reminded me of the Valkyries of Nordic mythologies; whether the resemblance in the names was coincidental or something dreamed up by marketers, I don’t know.


  3. Matt
    Jun 29, 2012 @ 14:07:02

    I just found this blog today, and I love it. I’ve been learning Spanish for 3 years and making similar discoveries about word connections, which give me a real thrill of discovery every time. This entry is particularly well done — I like how how you threw in the Ana Belly at the end.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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