Saturday, May 19, 2007


I'm on a French kick at the moment, being a latent Francophile, and this is yet another word of French origin that finally tickled my French fancy.

Denouement--of course it would be French with all those vowels in rapid succession, and the correct pronounciation dropping the final "nt" in favor of the nasal "e"--comes from the French "dénouer" for to untie from the Latin "de" meaning the negative of the following word and "nodare" for "to tie in a knot." So literally, the word means to untie the knot, and figuratively, that has been applied to the resolution of the complex elements of an event or the plot of a literary or dramatic work. Did dénouer in 1752 when the word was coined ever just mean picking at one's bootlaces? Possibly, but it does seem equally appropriate to unraveling the threads of the story lines of a novel, and then by easy extension, to unraveling any complicated issue. So, no major detours in the evolution and current usage of this word.

The denouement of any fairy tale is the wedding between the hero and the damsel with the coda "and they lived happily ever after". Perhaps fairy tales aren't complicated, but you get the point. A typical film follows a 3 act formula with a quick denouement in the last reel; however, the movie AI: Artifical Intelligence, had a 3 act denouement which was painful to watch not only for the additional length but also for the lack of understanding of when the picture would actually end. The denouement of an argument between friends should lead to reconciliation and apologies. Plaintiff's counsel enjoyed the sound of his own voice so much that he failed to present a proper denouement in his closing argument that the jury could understand what the point of his speech was. Isn't the graduation ceremony merely a denouement of four years in college? This word isn't hard to use in everyday life. Any time an activity is winding down, this word is appropriate. There is an overtone of resolution of a complicated issue, the idea being that the events have been building to a climax which is resolved. If there is no building, though, there may be little to resolve, and therefore no real denouement. Conversely, a denouement which leads to a cliffhanger may be unsatisfying as not really resolving anything. So using denouement outside of normally complicated resolutions gives that import to the thing, for effect or for sarcasm. The denouement of the work day is packing up to go home. Perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but that depends on how intricate one's work is and how difficult it may be to extricate oneself at the end of the day. The denouement of bankruptcy usually ends in a fire sale of assets. So many opportunities. So little time. The denouement of many entries in this forum involves a usage impugning plaintiffs' counsel. Enjoy.

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