Word of the Month: Chicane

David Zapatka

The Tour de France is one of the greatest sporting spectacles of the year. I love watching the drama and triumph. While watching the broadcast, I heard a commentator describe the upcoming chicane in the course and knew immediately that “chicane” would be my next word of the month.

Chicane verb chi·cane | shi-ˈkān , chi- 1. to use chicanery 2. to trick 3. to cheat

noun 1.a. an obstacle on a racecourse b. a series of tight turns in opposite directions in an otherwise straight stretch of a road-racing course 2. the absence of trumps in a hand of cards

Origin and etymology—verb; borrowed from French chicaner “to dispute by means of quibbles, raise issues with minor points of law in order to complicate a judicial suit,” going back to Middle French, “to sue, prosecute,” perhaps a blend of the Gallo-Romance expressive base čik- expressing diminutiveness (as in Old Occitan chic “small,” French chiquet “small piece”) and ricaner “to snicker, laugh affectedly or contemptuously,” borrowed from French, “quibble on a minor point of law brought up to complicate a judicial case,” noun; derivative of chicaner “to raise issues with minor points of law”

There’s no mystery about the origins of chicane. It’s from the Middle French verb chicaner, meaning “to quibble” or “to prevent justice,” and print evidence of its use as a verb in English dates to around 1672. The noun form of chicane was first used in print in 1686. In addition to referring to “trickery,” the noun chicane is used to refer to an obstacle or a series of tight turns in opposite directions on a racecourse. In card games, chicane refers to the absence of trumps in a hand of cards. One curiosity of this word set is that the word that would appear to be a derivative of chicane—chicanery (a synonym of chicane in its “trickery” sense)—actually appeared in English over 60 years before chicane.

First used—circa 1672 as a verb; 1686 as a noun

Chicane used in a sentence:

Most get-rich-quick schemes involve more than a smidgen of chicane.

Chicane in the news and literature:

Apparently Judge Dunder had in this case resolved to wink a little at chicane and decide for justice in the broader sense. The Incendiary, W. A. (William Augustine) Leahy

On Sunday, drivers were having trouble with the chicane in the back-to-back fifth and sixth turns.—Michael Marot, ajc, Aug. 16, 2021

However, the story of the day was the turn 5-6 chicane.—Rob Peeters, The Indianapolis Star, Aug. 15, 2021

My sternum hugged a pad of skateboard grip tape, enforcing the stability of my posture, translating my movements to the machine for what came next: the left-hand chicane into a sweeping right turn.—Kenneth R. Rosen, Wired, Nov. 17, 2020

Please submit any chicanery experiences you have had or any word you may like to share, along with your insights and comments, to [email protected].