Soon after I moved to Paris, I read an interesting article about Lolita in Le Monde which touched on some of the reaction the book had had in France. One particular photo intrigued me. It was from 5 July 1960 and showed a group of actresses protesting in front of the Académie Française – not about the book's content but about a linguistic point. Their banner reads:
NON MONSIEUR NABOKOV
EST FRANÇAIS DEPUIS RONSAR
What they were so annoyed about was the fact that Nabokov claimed to have coined the word ‘nymphet’ for his novel. Not so for the French equivalent, the Académie's supporters insisted. (The Monde journalist, not a big Lolita fan, calls ‘nymphette’ a diminutif répugnant, on what appear to be moral rather than linguistic grounds.) The ‘Ronsar’ this banner refers to is Pierre de Ronsard, a member of the 16th-century Pléiade group of writers.
So I went out and bought a book of his verse in an attempt to find this point of vocabulary. Eventually, after about four and a half hours of reading in the Luxembourg Gardens, and with a rapidly developing appreciation for this poet, I finally found sonnet CXIV of the Amours. I'll just quote the relevant sestet:
Quand ma Nymphette en simple verdugade
Cueillant des fleurs, des raiz de son œillade
Essuya l'air grelleux & pluvieux,
Des ventz sortiz remprisonna les tropes,
Et ralenta les marteaux des Cyclopes,
Et de Jupin rasserena les yeulx.
Which is something like:
When my nymphet, in just her underwear,
goes picking flowers, her flirtatious stare
clears the rain and hail from above –
she returns the loosed wind's moan to peace
and makes the Cyclops' hammers cease,
and calms the eyes of Jove.
(This was before I had kids, and before Hannah had come out to join me in France. The idea of spending all day in the park reading Middle French poetry now is like the stuff of a madman's dream.)
Now to defend Nabokov, I'd point out that here the word is really used (albeit somewhat figuratively) in its general sense of ‘small or young nymph’, a sense in which it already existed in English. While the OED's entry does give Lolita as the earliest quotation for the sense of ‘sexually attractive young girl’, it also records several ‘small nymph’ citations going back to 1612. The earliest citation in French is from 1512, so arguably they could still win if it came to a stand-up fight about precedence.
Given Nabokov's predilection for dictionaries, I would say the odds are considerably against his not knowing all of the above. The more so when, as I later discovered, Ronsard is actually referenced in Lolita. Quoting Nabokov is always a delight, so:
I now refused to be diverted by the feeling of well-being that my walk had engendered – by the young summer breeze that enveloped the nape of my neck, the giving crunch of the damn gravel, the juicy tidbit I had sucked out at last from a hollowy tooth, and even the comfortable weight of my provisions which the general condition of my heart should not have allowed me to carry; but even that miserable pump of mine seemed to be working sweetly, and I felt adolori d'amoureuse langueur, to quote dear old Ronsard, as I reached the cottage where I had left my Dolores.
I thought it was rather brilliant of him to have found a Ronsard quote which puns on Lolita's name – but in the back of my Annotated Lolita I read: ‘The phrase “d'amoureuse langueur” appears several times, with slight variations, in Ronsard's Amours. “Adolori” […] is, of course, HH.'s addition.’
Anyway: read some Ronsard. You mever know which postmodern novelist is going to appropriate his stuff next, and it's always good to be prepared.