The Association pour l’Academie d’Art Equestre de Versailles produces big, beautifully presented books on the history of horses and horsemanship, stuffed with essays by academics and carefully researched illustrations. Browsing through one of them, A Cheval!, I discovered an essay by Jacqus Mulliez on bidets.
Bidets – the old French word for a small, nondescript, often badly conformed horse bred in a semi-wild herd and used as a jack-of-all-trades.
It was in common usage (as of course were the horses) until a wave of Anglomania in the French equine world led to the adoption of the word “pony”. Here’s my fairly free translation of Mulliez on the later meaning of the term:
“… since 1739 a derivative meaning [of the word ‘bidet’] has appeared that demonstrates at what point a bidet was [still] a small horse. [This derivative meaning] indicates an accessory which permits the intimate toilette of the individual, placed below [the body] and between straddled legs, with both feet resting on the ground. The Trésor de la Langue Français indicates that the first occurance of the bidet as accessory to the dressing room crops up on the business card of Master Perverie, woodworker, rue aux Ours, with the shop sign ‘Belle Tête‘, whose specialities are ‘the bidet, the double bidet, and the chair with two backs’! An examination of the examples of the usage of this derivative meaning in the scandalous literature of the end of the Ancien Régime include the Abbé de Voisement, Fougeret de Montbron, Restif la Bretonne, Mirabeau and the Marquis de Sade, and at the end of the nineteenth century, [the term appears in the] realist [novels] of the brothers Goncourts, Huysman and Maupassant, … at which point the French language knew only a bidet made from porcelain, and a little later, to illustrate this proposal, I will end with a quotation from Claude Roy’s 1979 novel, La Traversée du Pont des Arts:
‘Charles’ true recollection was surely not that what he should have recalled. He had a black beard that tickled his cheeks as he repeated, “at trot my bidet, at trot, at gallop.” Charles felt the rough wool of his blue trousers against his thighs. Why was the horse that made him bounce around a bidet? Bidets were for bathrooms.'”