The real meaning of ‘insouciance’

focus photo of brown sheep under blue sky

‘Insouciance’ is a fantastically pompous word whose meaning I can never remember, no matter how many times I look it up.

It one of those words that I have never heard spoken aloud – you’d sound like a bit of a dill if you threw it into a conversation (Go on, I dare you!) – but which keeps cropping up in the books I read.

This occurred most recently on page 261 of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson when the young narrator, Ruby Lennox, describes the family car being stuck behind “one particularly insouciant beast” on a drive down a country road in Scotland.

The insouciant beast in question is a sheep, part of a herd that the family are forced to navigate around frequently on their holiday.

Just what kind of sheep was this, I wondered? Lazy, evil, cunning, naughty, haughty? I had no idea. So I looked it up – again.

Insouciant, or the noun ‘insouciance’ pronounced IN-SU-SI-ENCE means “lighthearted unconcern” according to the Merrim Webster Dictionary” or a “casual lack of concern” according to the definition Google throws up.

The Cambridge Dictionary puts a bit more meat on the bone saying it means a “relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty”, while the MacMillan Dictionary throws in a more specific circumstantial factor defining it as “not worrying about or paying attention to possible problems”.

My favourite definition comes from the Collins Dictionary which defines insouciance as a “lack of concern shown by someone about something which they might be expected to take more seriously”.

“He replied with characteristic insouciance: ‘So what?'” is the example this dictionary gives.

Synonyms include “apathy”, “nonchalance”, “indifference” and another little-used word “torpor”.

Of French origins, its fabulously pronounced AN-SOO-SAYN in the mother tongue and no doubt still used in conversation by chic Parisians, without sounding quite as silly as an English speaker would.

As for the “insouciant beast” on page 261 of my novel, I can only laugh when applying all these descriptions to the behaviour of a rather silly farm animal.

On the other hand , is does rather brilliantly describe the seemingly animalistic urge to not give a shit.

It also nicely describes the attitudes of quite a lot of people in high office, come to think of it.


3 thoughts on “The real meaning of ‘insouciance’

  1. Perhaps someone who can parleyvoo a little in the old Français can help you out.

    A ‘souci’ in French is a ‘worry’. Indeed, the self-reflective verb ‘se soucier’ is to be concerned or worried about something. Therefore, to be ‘insouciant’ is literally not to be concerned or worried about something.

    But, like the Italian ‘sprezzatura’ (a word equally abused by ‘us Anglophones’), ‘insouciant’ carries a somewhat more ‘careless’ attitude than simply not being concerned about something. If your initial care factor is zero, insouciance starts to push you into the negative value range. The famous Gallic shrug is a gesture which conveys something of the ‘vibe’ of insouciance: not only does one not care, one could actually care less.

    Collins is right when they offer ‘nonchalance’ and ‘indifference’ as synonyms, although the latter is a little weak in conveying the ‘attitudinal’ quality of insouciance. ‘Apathy’ is distinctly questionable and ‘torpor’ is quite wrong.

    At the risk of being seen as a dill, I insouciantly insert ‘insouciant’ into a sentence any time it seems à propos, and I could really care less what anyone thinks. That’s the art of ‘being insouciant’ in a nutshell, and it requires a certain Gallic panache to carry it off.

    Thanks for posting. It’s always amusing for wordsmiths to wrangle over the meanings of the tools of their trade.


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