Bête noire

In English, the French loanword bête noire refers to someone or something that is very troubling to someone.1 It might be something that is insufferable or contemptible, an endless source of torment, or just a pet peeve. A bête noire is almost always spoken of in relation to the person or thing it torments. So while it is a bête noire makes sense, you’re more likely to hear it is my bête noire.

Bête noire is French for black beast. We’re including the French circumflex over the first e, but English is not kind to these accent marks, and the phrase is often written bete noire.

One early instance of bête noire’s use in English is in the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray:

To some of these female darlings she began presently to write about my unworthy self, and it was with a sentiment of extreme satisfaction I found at length that the widow was growing dreadfully afraid of me; calling me her bete noire, her dark spirit, her murderous adorer, and a thousand other names indicative of her extreme disquietude and terror.

This is one of the first instances of the phrase’s use in English, but bête noire has earlier origins in French.2 3

Searching the web, we find that bête noire is especially common in English-language publications from India. We can’t explain this.

Examples

Inflexibly applied standards, especially as established by the No Child Left Behind Act, are her particular bete noire. [LA Times]

Hotels that try to be hip are my bête noire: a collection of trendy things together, without a soul. [Guardian]

Why has insider trading become the bête noire of Wall Street? [New York Times]

[N]ot only did governor HR Bhardwaj have kind words about his leadership but also not-so-kind ones for his bete noire, the registrar. [Times of India]

But they were not fighting Hamas, Israel’s traditional bête noire in Gaza. [Foreign Policy]

References

1. “Bete noire” in the OED (subscription required)
2. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
3. “Bete noire” at Mon-Expression.info (in French)

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