Pejorative Eponyms – “Quétaine”

As often happens, today I was looking at something on the internet when my running internal commentary snarked, quétaine! People from Quebec grow up knowing this very useful word, which describes a thing, style or behaviour which is simultaneously lame, camp, kitschy, corny, and contemptible. Here is a site devoted to photographic evidence of it. And here’s a couple illustrative examples of the word in action:

1. Quel est la chose la plus quétaine recu en cadeaux???
Moi dans un échange de cadeaux à mon travail, il y a de cela plusieurs années, j’ai reçu une cage à oiseau fait à la main avec un petit oiseau en fausse plumes à l’intérieur…c’était tellement laid et en plus moi qui a peur des oiseaux pour mourir. Je voulais pleurer et moi en plus qui m’avais forcer pour tricoter un beau chandail pour mon échange à moi… [from; ]
What is the most quetaine gift you’ve every received???
In an gift-exchange at work a couple of years ago I got a handmade birdcage with a little bird inside with fake feathers…it was so ugly and on top of that I’m deathly afraid of birds. I wanted to cry, and I who had made the effort to knit a nice sweater…

Other horrid gifts described on this site: “un gros dragons en plâtre peinturé au air-brush!!” [a big, air-brushed plaster dragon]; “une paire de ciseaux” [a pair of scissors]; “j’ai reçu un rouleaux de papier toilette avec des jokes en Anglais. Et moi je suis pas très humour et je ne comprend pas un mot en d’Anglais.” [I got a roll of toilet paper with English jokes on it. Plus, I’m not that jokey myself and I don’t understand a word of English.]

Here is the word in a more literary context:

2. Les parents de Christine avaient essayé d’éviter le quétaine intégral en louant, plutôt qu’une vulgaire salle de réception du boulevard Taschereau, la salle principale d’une vieille auberge du Vieux-Montréal où les serveurs, disaient-ils, étaient stylés. Mais à trop vouloir travestir le quétaine, on ne réussit qu’à le dénaturer, a lui enlever ce qu’il peut d’avoir d’admirable. [from F. Gravel, Ostende.]
Christine’s parents had tried to avoid total quetainery in renting (instead of a vulgar reception hall on Taschereau boulevard) the main hall of an old inn in Old Montreal, where the wait staff, they said, were stylish. But in trying too hard to disguise one’s quetainery, one only succeeds in denaturing it, in depriving it of whatever could have been admirable in it.

Note, in the second example, the condescension towards the class pretensions of the family in question. It appears quétaine started out meaning something like “outmoded,” “out of fashion,” “old-style,” “shabby,” “poorly dressed,” “poor,” and applied especially to habits of dress of the lower classes rather than their poor social form.

For this reason, some have surmised that the term comes from quêter, quêteux — to beg, a beggar — and originally referred to second-hand clothes and cast-offs begged from others.  It seems to have been applied first to those who lived in the poor haymarket quarters of small Quebec towns.

However, the earliest etymologies of the word trace it to one of several potential family names, all of which were associated with the town of St-Hyacinthe, QC. The first few single out Irish or Scottish families, which might explain the alternative spelling kétaine:

  1. Keaton –  “Les gens qui habitaient ces maisons etaient tres pauvres et souvent tres malpropres. Il y avait le Mc Augen, les Viau, les Flibotte, les Moquin…mais il y avait aussi la famille Keaton qui battaient tous les records de malproprete. On commenca par dire a quelqu’un qu’il avait l’air d’un Keaton, ce qui n’etait pas tres flatteur.” People who lived in those houses were very poor and often unclean. There were the McAugens, the Viaus, the Flibottes, the Moquins…but there was also the Keaton family, which beat all records of uncleanliness. We started by saying that you looked like a Keaton, which was not very flattering. [Andre Perrault]
  2. Keating – “angl. Keating, nom d’une famille écossaise de Saint-Hyancithe” [Travaux de linguistique québécoise, vol.2, 1979]
  3. Martin – “Quétenne est synonyme de rustre et vient du surnom d’une des plus notoires familles du bas de la ville, les Martin dits Quétenne.” Quetenne is a synonym of rustic and comes from the surname of one of the more notorious families of the low-town, the Martins, called Quétenne. [Memoirs of Télesphore-Damien Bouchard (attrib)]

Etymologies from eponyms, like those from acronyms, are almost always wrong. It would be a good project for an undergraduate to search out early town and parish records to find out if any Keatons, McKeatons, or Keatings lived in the likely quarters of Saint-Hyacinthe before say 1930 (when Bouchard’s memoirs were published). Martins there must have been plenty of, but the appellation dit Quétenne doesn’t really establish the origin of the term, since even if there had been a such a family, they might well have acquired the name by their habits, and not vice versa.

But even if wrong (and it likely is), the Keaton/Keating etymology tells us something about our naive habits of linguistic analysis as well as the habits of social and linguistic prejudice of the culture that produced it. That is, though quétaine doesn’t come from Keaton, there’s a kind of connotative reflux action embedded in the revisionary association with it. To some, anyway, it seemed plausible enough — and “some” includes the Université Laval linguists who put together Travaux de linguistique québécoise in the 1970s.

A good comparison is the hooligan, whose etymology is uncertain, but is widely supposed to be a form of Houlihan, a name that came to represent a stereotype of Irish foolery, drunken rambunctiousness, or petty criminality, in the late 19thC.

Is part of the power of the eponym the idea that someone could do something so remarkable, or could in his behaviour embody so fully a concept, that his name brings a new word for it into existence, and lives on in the language?

PS. La reine du quétaine:


  • La reine du quétaine is NOT Céline! It’s more like Creton in La Petite Vie or Nikki Minaj for a more international flair.

  • D-AW wrote:

    The cast of

  • David, on the subject of Céline and her quétaine appeal, I highly recommend Carl Wilson’s book “Let’s Talk About Love, A Journey to the End of Taste”