Adventures in Etymology – Nonchalant

In this Adventure we’re calmly looking into the origins of the word nonchalant.


Nonchalant [ˈnɒn.ʃəl.ənt / ˌnɑn.ʃəˈlɑnt] means:

  • casually calm and relaxed
  • indifferent, unconcerned, behaving as if detached

It comes from the French nonchalant (indolent, cool, relaxed) from the Old French nonchaloir (to have no importance, indifference), from non- (not) and chaloir (to heat, bother, concern), from the Latin calēre (to matter or care) from caleō (I am warm or hot, I glow) [source].

Words from the same Latin roots include calorie, cauldron, chowder, caldera, coddle and scald in English, calor (heat) in Spanish, and chaleur (heat, warmth, fervour) in French [source].

If you can be nonchalant, can you be chalant? Well, the word chalent does exist, at least in informal use, and means careful, attentive or concerned [source], or concerning, frustrating and possibly hostile [source].

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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4 thoughts on “Adventures in Etymology – Nonchalant

  1. Well, Simon, if someone could be uncouth, could they be couth? I have never heard that said except as a joke. In contrast, I never heard chalant before used as anything until I woke up this morning and read your post. (I am sure you are about ready for your afternoon tea by now, since you are 6 hours later than me.)

    I don’t know, in a way, “chalant” keeps wanting to remind me of “chalet”, as though chalant were actually chalet in a different language.

    OK, let’s just say it and get it out there:
    Words are weird.

    Cheers, Simon. Enjoy that tea while you have a few hours of daylight left.


  2. You can be couth (familiar, (well-)known, renowned) [source].

    You could also be shevelled (very tidy, neat, ordered) [source] or kempt (neat and tidy, esp. of hair) [source].

    Couth used to exist in English, while shevelled is a back-formation from dishevelled and kempt is a back-formation from unkempt, although it was originally a past participle of kemb(en) (to comb/brush one’s hair).

    I don’t really drink tea, by the way. I prefer hot chocolate.

  3. By saying words are “back-formations”, isn’t that saying that someone just made them up because it seems like they “fit”, even though there’s no evidence that such formations were ever actually real words?

    Isn’t that a type of “folk-etymology”, where people guess at the origins of words and make up purported origins for those words without any historical proof of their validity?

  4. According to Wikipedia, “back-formation is the process or result of creating a new word via inflection, typically by removing or substituting actual or supposed affixes from a lexical item, in a way that expands the number of lexemes associated with the corresponding root word.”

    So dishevelled and unkempt came first. Then people knocked off the prefixes to form shevelled and kempt, perhaps thinking that those were the original roots of those words.

    This is similar to folk etymology, which involves an erroneous understanding of the morphology of a word. For example, sparrowgrass is a name for asparagus in some dialects of English, and is the result of mishearing the original word.

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