Good morning all,
I am responding this morning to a request from Dom (not his real name) for some sort of a back story behind a politically incorrect, albeit moderate, pejorative Briticism, “window-licker”. For those unfamiliar with the term, well first you should read more British books/watch more British TV etc. Anyway it means ‘mentally handicapped person’. With the term itself being quite descriptive, straightforward and somewhat evocative, there are a number of stories out there in the unregulated wild West that is internet, which all purport to explain the origin of the term; invariably most of them involve a person of a questionable level of intelligence physically licking a window, be it of a bus/ whisky condensation at a distillery or a generic shop-window, wanting something that’s on the other side of the window.
Then I remembered (from a podcast) that the French expression for ‘to window-shop’ is ‘faire du lèche-vitrine’, literally meaning ‘to do window-licking’. After having googled for more than an hour over a few days, I decided not to verify this but instead to throw in another conjecture to the existing body of inconclusive mess of dubious online etymologies.
Picture the following; 19th century London; outside a rather fashionable patisserie, say, Ladurée somewhere really fancy, say Mayfair, manned by a real French proprietor selling all things decadent and delectable in full view of passers-by through freshly cleaned pristine panes of window, beckoning all those who can afford to pay for sumptuous baked goods. Then there’s you, standing there penniless, desperately yearning for one nibble at the thing or a whiff of the stuff. Totally mesmerised, with your face pressed against the window, you start drooling on the window. Now if the shop owner saw you, to them at least, you most certainly would look like a complete ‘window-licker’, would you not? Now since the owner of the shop is French who speaks something that barely passes off as English, he calls you window-licker, merely meaning to describe you and the activity with which you’re engaged; you a ‘window-shopper’. But being self-conscious of your poor, pathetic form, you take it as an insult, thinking “did he just call me a retard”? You manage to remember the sound of the phrase a few days later and repeat it to a learned person who understands basic (but not colloquial) French, who then tells you “I think that patisseur called you literally a ‘window-licker’.”. In turn you (wrongly) confirm to yourself that it was indeed an insult, with your interpretation of it being ‘retard’.
There we have it; probably the most unfounded and unsubstantiated etymological speculation you will find anywhere on the internet. But i hope it was entertaining at least and at best I hope it highlighted the importance of citation and references when claiming something factual.
Don’t go licking any windows and have a good Friday.