Such a lovely-sounding word; such a subtle, complex, and nearly universal emotion: “acute vexation, annoyance, or mortification, arising from disappointment, thwarting, or failure,” as the OED puts it*; “disquietude or distress of mind caused by humiliation, disappointment, or failure,” according to Merriam-Webster. It found its way into English from French in the late 17th century, and was considered “affected or frenchified” for several decades thereafter. Alexander Pope used chagrin in his 1714 narrative poem “The Rape of the Lock,” where he rhymed it with “spleen.” (Pope may have been singlehandedly responsible for rescuing chagrin from French purgatory: the OED gives two additional example sentences from his correspondence.)
I was surprised to learn that chagrin comes not from the language of moods but from the lexicon of the physical world. You may know its Anglicized form, shagreen (yes, rhymes with “spleen”), which means “rough, untanned leather … prepared from the skin of the horse, ass, etc., or of the shark, seal, etc., and frequently dyed green.” It’s also a color name.
From The Spruce, a home-and-family website: “If you're looking for a fun green paint color, consider Shagreen. This green is right on the cusp of warm and cool, with just enough softness to push it over to the cool side.”
How did a word for a type of leather become a word for a type of feeling?
The shift occurred in the original French, where “rough skin” became metaphorically associated with “gnawing trouble.” The title of Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 novel La Peau de Chagrin – usually translated as The Wild Ass’s Skin – elegantly straddles the two meanings. Here’s how Bruce Handy, in Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (2017), describes the plot:
[The book] tells the story of a despondent young man who, on the verge of suicide, comes to possess a magic piece of leather that will grant him his every wish, with the caveat that each wish shrinks the skin, and that when he runs out of skin and wishes, he will die. The book turns out to be a very adult fairy tale about humankind’s troubled relationship with desire in all its forms.
And yes, Handy adds, there’s an intentional pun in chagrin.
That’s just one of the many things I’ve learned from Wild Things, a thoroughly delightful and enlightening survey of contemporary and classic children’s books, from the humorless New England Primer (1690) to the anodyne Dick and Jane (1930s), from Little Women to Goodnight Moon, from Narnia to Oz. The chagrin bit is in a footnote, and there are many other footnotes like it: charming, conversational, and unexpected. If you loved books as a child, or read books to your own children, you’ll want to add Wild Things to your bookshelf alongside Maurice Sendak, Beverly Cleary, and E.B. White.
By the way, the village of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, probably did not get its name from some historical disappointment, unlike, say, Mistake Island, Defeated, Mount Misery, and other sad place names. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, it was probably named Shaguin, after an 18th-century French trader, Sieur de Seguin, “because the Indians had only an sh sound in their language.” The spelling was “further corrupted” into its current form during the making of a 1797 map.
* The OED definition also includes “carking care,” which sent me to carking, a Middle English word meaning “burdensome” or “grievous.”
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