Monday, July 4, 2022

David LeGault writing as The Malcontent: Essay in French Means Try


The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. You know: puppies, nature, Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Seneca, even love itself. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.” 

Who would you want to take down? How about Didion? Montaigne? Let's take some shots at the pillars of the genre. Pitch us your own malcontent piece here.

Essay in French Means Try 

The French verb “essayer,” in English, means "to try." [1]

Your post reminded me that the French word essayer is the verb to try. So to write an essay is to write an attempt: at understanding, at giving meaning, at making a human connection. [2]

The word “essay" comes from a French word meaning “to try," and was first used by Montaigne to describe the short, simple, personal things he wrote to try to understand himself. [3]

The word “essay” comes from the French “essayer,” which means “to try” or “attempt.” [4

To essay stems from the French word, essai, which means, simply, “to try.” The essence of an essay is the trying. [5]

It dates back, according to some, to 16th century French writer Montaigne and to the French root of the word “essay,” which means to “attempt” or “try.” [6

The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt." In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing. [7

You might also know that essay can be a verb, with its most common meaning being "to try, attempt, or undertake": [8]

In French, the word essayer means “to try.” Essays, then, are attempts to make meaning out of real experience, and to situate that experience within larger cultural, historical, and philosophical frameworks. [9]

The word essay comes from the word assay, which means, to try. [10

Essay Writing: The word essay comes from the French word essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” [11]

This wonderful word derives, as anyone who writes on the subject is legally obligated to note, from the French essai, an attempt or experiment, Michel de Montaigne's metaphor for his testing of the question "Que sais-je?" [12]

That’s where the word “essay” comes from—the French verb, essayer, means to try. [13]

An essay remains true to its etymological springs—essai, essayer, assay (attempt, experiment, weigh up, test, investigate)—even though its waters have flowed far beyond them. [14]

The essay, derived from the French term essayer meaning "to try" or "to attempt," is not only a beloved sub-genre of creative nonfiction, but a form that yields many kinds of stories, thus many kinds of structures. [15]

The meaning of “Essay” is “To Try.” [16]

The Personal Essay. From the French verb essayer, which means “to try.” [17]

As you likely know, the word essay derives from the French word essayer, which means to try. [18]

At one time, assay and essay were synonyms, sharing the meaning "try" or "attempt." In the 17th century, an essay was an effort to test or prove something. [19]

I’d be remiss not to point out that the word “Essay” means “to try” in its French origins. [20]

French writer and minor noble Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) coined the term that has lasted so long, by naming his ramblings, roving, contradictory, prickly, warm, self-examining, doubting, and always smart prose inquiries “tries.” He was just trying to get what he thought down on paper, letting each “try,” or essay find its own shape. [21]

The term essay comes from a middle French word, essai, which means a test or trial or experiment—an attempt. Therefore, I think that since every essay is an attempt, it is also inevitably an apprenticeship to failure. [22]

Only the most restrained of writers has ever commented on the form without pointing out that the word for it comes from the French verb essayer, “to try.” [23


[1] The thing about it is that, yeah, it did sound pretty cool and profound the first time I heard it.

[2] The thing about it is that it is always presented as new and exciting, despite the fact that everyone knows it.

[3] The literary equivalent of telling somebody that CPR compressions can be done to the Bee Gees song, “Staying Alive.”

[4] It took me less than an hour to make this list. It could undoubtedly have been much longer if I really wanted to essay (meaning try). 

[5] There’s a pretty good chance that if you’re the sort of person who reads a blog dedicated to the essay, you’ve already come across at least a couple of these. 

[6] It’s possible that I am quoting at least one or two of you directly.

[7] And you know better. 

[8] I think what bothers me is that everyone presents this fact as if they just discovered it, as if they haven’t already read it somewhere else at least a dozen times.

[9] Even in your intro to creative nonfiction syllabus, it is pretty condescending. 

[10] It’s even worse when you’re presenting this to an audience of your peers.

[11] And it’s not like we couldn’t do this for any number of words of French origin.

[12Baguette in French means stick, which is interesting, I guess, but it doesn’t change my appreciation of what a baguette is or even what it should be.

[13] The word for digging clay from the ground is winning. This does not change the way I think about this act.

[14] This last factoid comes from a failed essay about how much time I spent as a child digging in the creek running behind my parents’ home. I discovered it while committing the essayist’s sin of using dictionary definitions to try and dig up (winning!) some profound symbolic meaning based on etymology. Which is to say I’m not above this sort of laziness in my writing, though I hope it gets deleted somewhere between the first and final drafts.

[15] Because it’s not even true that we are publishing our attempts.

[16] Attempts are the essays that don’t go anywhere: the writing exercises, the killed darlings, the discarded drafts languishing in a desktop folder.

[17] Attempt implies that failure is as possible as success. I don’t believe I’ve seen enough failures in writing to really consider that an active part of what the essay is. With that said, I kind of wish it was.

[18] A former professor was asking about my work, and he said it seemed that what I was really writing about was failure. Given the actual subject of that book, this is probably more a comment about my personality than anything else.

[19] So maybe that’s the closest we’re going to get to a thesis: not only has this etymology passed the point of cliche and gone into the realm of hackery, it’s not even a good explanation of what we’re doing here. 

[20] Imagine how much longer this list could be if I wasn’t too lazy to open a book, if I did anything other than type this essay’s title into Google and hit copy/paste a bunch of times while watching Murder, She Wrote.

[21] Imagine how much better we could be if we just explored topics without trying to think of how our Literature fits into the tradition of a dead French philosopher.

[22] The thing I’ve always loved about the essay is that it defies categorization, that its very nature opens to experimentation in ways that other genres cannot. So I will never understand why everyone’s trying so hard to be the next Montaigne, navel gazing in a tower. What purpose does this serve except to close us off, to become only the thing that other essayists read? Can we please drop this etymology and find some other way of articulating that we are writing toward some unknown, trying to find meaning in all of this?

[23] With that said, I’m still way more likely to quote Montaigne than ever refer to writing as a hermit crab.  


David LeGault is the author of One Million Maniacs, a book on collecting. He's currently at work on a book of essays on and about games. Other work can be found at

The Malcontent is a (usually) pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. Want to pitch us a malcontent piece? Email resident Malcontent Kevin Mosby

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