Bijou strongman? Never heard this term before! And, in fact, I realize that I don’t even know the definition of ‘bijou’ – I had a vague notion that it related to theaters, movie theaters, movies. But in spite of this, the above quote does give a window into meaning of ‘bijou strongman.’<2019 “President Trump heaped praise on Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban during his visit to the White House this week, shrugging off concerns about the Central European leader’s increasing authoritarianism. . . . Sitting next to Orban must have ‘stoked a jealous rage in Trump,’ said Rick Wilson [political strategist, author, and media consultant] in the TheDailyBeast.com. In less than a decade, this ‘bijou strongman’ has turned Hungary into a tightly controlled autocracy. . . Orban ‘is the authoritarian creep Trump wishes he could be.’”—The Week, 24 May issue, page 5>
To begin, I better first look into ‘bijou', its use as both a noun and an adjective.
American Heritage Dictionary
bijou noun: A small, exquisitely wrought trinket. [[Note: This is the only definition provided for ‘bijou’– no mention of an adjective!]]
Origin: French, from Breton bizou, jeweled ring, from biz, finger.
Hmm! Interesting, but not very helpful in my quest for the meaning of ‘bijou strongman,’ although something ‘small’ and ‘exquisitely wrought’ may provide a hint at its meaning.
Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary
1) trinket, jewel: a small dainty usually ornamental piece of delicate workmanship and fine material [[Surprisingly, this was the definition that my number-one son provided, right off the bat, when I asked him for the meaning!]]
2) something delicate, elegant, or highly prized
Origin: French, from Breton bizou ring, from biz finger; akin to Welsh bys finger, Old Cornish bis, bes
First Known Use:1668 (sense 1)
Small of its kind and usually marked by fine detail and workmanship. <Can Americans be persuaded to pay out dollars for bijou cars?> — used especially of buildings <a bijou theater with delicate rococo decorations> [[This last example is probably where I got my idea that ‘bijou’ had a connection to theaters, movies, . . .]]
First Known Use: 1839
These definitions, at first glance, still didn’t seem to me to reveal what the bijou in ‘bijou strongman’ inferred, So I continued to look in other dictionaries:
British: (especially of a house or flat) small and elegant. <a bijou residence> <What used to be their homes and even workshops are now largely weekend cottages or bijou conversions for long-distance commuters.>
Synonyms: small, little, compact, snug, cosy, desirable, sought-after, elegant, stylish, chic, fashionable
archaic A jewel or trinket. <Here an ancient citadel coils around an old port and bijou restaurants crowd around a modern marina. [[Note: This is the only dictionary that I’ve checked which claims the noun is archaic!]]
Synonyms: ornament, novelty, gewgaw, piece of bric-a-brac, bibelot, trinket, trifle, bauble, gimcrack, bagatelle, curio, curiosity, plaything, toy.
bijou adjective: (especially of a building) small but attractive <The street is lined with bijou cafés and bars.> <The agent described the flat as a bijou residence.>
Dictionary.com, CollinsDictionary.com, and FreeDictionary.org provided nothing new.
As a final check to see how ‘bijou,’ could possibly describe a strongman I went to see what the OED had to say:
The Oxford English Dictionary
bijou noun: A jewel, a trinket; a ‘gem’ among works of art. Also attributive Loosely as adjective.: small and elegant, luxurious (applied especially to houses).
My summary of the apparent meaning of bijou in ‘bijou strongman’:
The OED’s and other above definitions of ‘bijou’ seem to indicate to me that in the expression ‘bijou strongman’ the 'bijou' we are talking about is something that may be described as small, compact, low-key, subtle, restrained, desirable, highly prized, elegant, ‘gemlike’ as opposed to being large, sprawling cumbersome, splashy, unrestrained, not finely crafted, . . .
In light of this apparent meaning of ‘bijou’ in the expression ‘bijou strongman’, I think the following quote in which the expression was actually coined captures the meaning of bijou strongman quite well as it is used in the The Week quote at the top of this posting:
From this quote we can see that bijou strongman is a pared down version (“a more subtle flavor”) of a Vladimir Putin and see how it meshes with my above apparent meaning of bijou in ‘bijou strongman as compared to more full-blown and overplayed disasters along the lines of dictators such as Putin, Kim Jong Un, and some others.<2019 “Donald Trump, a president who never met a dictator without falling in love, must have felt both utterly intrigued and slightly shorted by his visit (in the White House) with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban today. On the one hand, Orban is a part of the small-ball, slow-creep authoritarian movement, not the splashy, missile-parade style of Kim Jong Un. He lacks the cutthroat Great Power Player musk that comes off Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in waves and makes Trump weak in the knees. He’s not a sweaty backwater warlord like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. No, Orban is a more subtle flavor, a kind of bijou strongman. A source of fascination for Steve Bannon, the architect of much of Trump’s nationalist populist claptrap, the prime minister is a proud advocate for what he calls ‘illiberal democracy.’ Trump’s envious nature must have been in overdrive.”—Daily Beast, 'Viktor Orban Is the Authoritarian Creep Trump Wishes He Could Be' by Rick Wilson, 13 May>
The following are some quotes for bijou as noun and adjective found in the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1747 “I . . . may retire to a little new farm . . . This little rural bijou was Mrs. Chevenix's.”—Correspondence, Letter by H. Walpole, (1954) XIX. page 414>
<1860 “The new theatre will be a perfect bijou temple of Thalia.” [[In Greek Mythology: 1) The Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry. 2) One of the three Graces]]—Players, I.7>
<1911 “An apartment so tiny that an auctioneer would have been justified in terming it ‘bijou’.”—The Card by A. Bennett, ii. page 34>
<1952 “The Empress lived in a bijou residence not far from the kitchen garden.”—Pigs have Wings by P.G. Wodehouse, i. page 14>
<1985 “The Phantom’s indefatigable bijou hunt turned up a real treasure this past week. Bellmore. The Movies . . . is not only Nassau County’s oldest living bijou (replete with vaudeville stage), but the lone double-feature theater in all of Long Island.”—Daily News (New York, New York), 31 July, page 460>
<2001 “A third daughter, Bijou, appeared at the age of 15 in a controversial 1995 advertising campaign for clothing designer Calvin Klein that featured teen models in provocative poses.”—Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California), 19 March, page 12> [[The positive connotations of bijou has led to the adoption of it as a first name. It appears on lists of ‘Unique Girl’s Names: Unusual and Rare,’]]
<2016 “The owners of the two Bijou [Art Cinemas] movie theaters in Eugene have parted ways following a bitter legal dispute.”—The Register Guard (Eugene, Oregon), 28 March>
<2019 “Bijou Telephone Cooperative Association offers internet service within the state of Colorado. DSL internet from Bijou Telephone Cooperative Association is available to an estimated 2,000 people.”—broadbandnow.com/Bijou-Telephone-Cooperative-Association, 11 June> [[The positive connotations of bijou has led to its use in company names implying such qualities as defined above as “smaller, highly prized, marked by fine detail and workmanship, etc.]]
<2019 “Artful Adornments: Offbeat Bijou – FloridaCraftArt hasn’t had a jewelry show in a while, so it will be a treat to see Offbeat Bijou. The gallery’s jewelry exhibitions are never run-of-the-mill.”—Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida), 24 January, page T43> [Note: see above Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary noun definition.]
Ken Greenwald – June 27, 2019