If I were naught but an insensitive churl, fain would I plummet to the pitiless nadir of telling hunchback jokes. But did you hear that the Hunchback of Notre Dame has retired? He received two years back pay, a lump sum, and a case of Bells.
Before his demise, Quasimodo was in the kitchen when his mother walked in carrying a wok. The hunchback said, “Great, I love Chinese food.” His mother shook her head, “Chinese food? No, no, my dear son. I use the wok to iron your shirts.”
Gibbous & Other Hunchback Words
Nowadays the word gibbous means hunchbacked. Gibbous is not pronounced djibus. Unlike most Latin-derived words in English that begin with gi-, gibbous has a hard g sound, as it had in classical Latin. Used in English by the onset of the fifteenth century CE, gibbous first meant ‘sticking out’ or ‘rounded,’ then, three hundred years later, English astronomers could speak of “a gibbous moon,” when the bright part of the moon is more than half its circumference but not a full moon. Gibbous is still used in reporting lunar status. It’s a humpbacked moon.
Gibbous did not refer in English to human hunchbacks until the late 1600s. About that same time, two related Latin terms were borrowed directly into English scientific vocabulary. Gibbose came from gibbosus ‘having a hump’ and from the same Latin adjective but formed as a French noun came la gibbosité, Englished as gibbosity ‘the condition of having a hunch back.’
From Latin gibbus ‘hump,’ the word is certainly cognate with Latvian gibbis ‘hunch-backed’ and probably cognate with Greek kûphos ‘hump’ and kuphós ‘bent forward, all descended from an Indo-European root *kub- and *kup ‘to curve, to bend.’ Latin had an even simpler reflex of the root too: gibber, gibbera, gibberum, an adjective meaning ‘hunchbacked.’
Note that the English noun hump is NOT cognate with gibbus, instead hump shares origin with Indo-European words like Latin incumbere ‘to lie down,’ ancient Greek κύμβη kymbē ‘drinking cup, bowl, hollow part of a vessel, boat’ and Sanskrit kumbha ‘pot.’ Among the English derivatives from such roots are incumbent from a medieval Latin meaning of incumbere ‘to seek, to obtain, to hold any ecclesiastical office.’ In the technical English vocabulary of formal anatomy cymba names the central empty part of the external human ear.
The most famous gibbous person in literature is the title character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, whose French title is Notre-Dame de Paris ‘Our Lady of Paris’ referring to the famous Seine-perched cathedral around which the plot revolves.
How did Quasi get his modo nickname? Neat story. Victor Hugo based the fictional character on a real-life hunchbacked stone mason who worked on the 1830s restoration of Notre Dame, a restoration promoted by Hugo himself and one of the reasons that Hugo wrote the novel, because Notre Dame was not the ecclesiastical showplace of Paris that it became. Bats pissed in its belfries and birds shat upon its altars until in 1832 Hugo’s novel helped draw attention to Notre Dame’s state of shabby disrepair and a massive, decade-long renovation commenced.
In the novel, a little Parisian boy is born frighteningly ugly, hunchbacked and warty-faced. On a Sunday after Easter, the grotesque runt is abandoned, left on the flesh-chilling stone steps of the cathedral, awaiting any vagrant mercy arising in the heart of a passerby. An abbot sees the boy, takes pity upon him, and brings the lad into the life of the church. He grows up to be a jack-of-all-trades and the chief bell ringer and he is named Quasimodo.
Now the Sunday after Easter is called Low Sunday and still in some European countries called Quasimodo Sunday. Is it Low Sunday because the pious are still in a crucifixional funk after Christ’s Easter demise? Or it is merely lower, being postcrucifixional? We don’t know.
But we do know the first words of the antiphonal introit, the hymn once sung in Latin by the choir and congregation as they wend up to the altar (Latin: introibo ad altare Dei ‘ I shall go in now unto the altar of the Lord.’) Those Latin words are quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ‘as newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the word that ye may grow thereby.’ So says The King James Version of the New Testament’s First Epistle of Peter, chapter 2, verse 2.
In Hugo’s deft writerly invention, the kindly abbot hears the choir chanting the very Latin words ‘newborn babes’ as he stoops to rescue the little child.
By the way, I'm sure I saw the Hunchback of Notre Dame this morning. If it wasn't him, it was a dead ringer.
Other Hunchback Words in Medicine
The ‘crookback’ nouns of English medical vocabulary are kyphosis, scoliosis and lordosis. Their adjectives are kyphotic, scoliotic and lordotic. Herewith, a small but useful note about the disease names that end in –osis: they all take an adjective in –otic. Consider more familiar pathological nouns like neurosis and its adjective neurotic, thrombosis and thrombotic, sclerosis and sclerotic, necrosis and necrotic, cyanosis and cyanotic.
Kyphosis or Cyphosis
In classical Greek kuphosis meant ‘condition of having a hunchback’ from κῡϕός kuphós ‘crooked’ or ‘bent.’ Kyphosis is the classic hunchbacked condition, backward curvature of the spine.
Derived from another Greek adjective σκολιός skolios ‘bent, curved, crooked’ comes scoliosis, a condition in which the spine is curved from side to side, lateral curvature of the spine.
In Greek λορδός lordos means ‘bent backward. The lordotic patient suffers a spinal curvature that pushes the chest out. It is a severe deformity.
Let us give the last word to the fictional bell ringer, Quasimodo: “My misfortune is that I still resemble a man too much. I should have liked to be wholly a beast like that goat there.”
─ The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo, 1831 CE
French novelist Victor Hugo survived into the age
of photography and here he is as an old man.
Bill Casselman, March 07, 2017
Text copyright 2017 by William Godon Casselman
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Victor Hugo's Quasimodo,
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