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Etymology of a microphone

Friday 24 October 2014

As I was reading about the technicalities of sound recording, I wondered where the lavalier micro­phone got its name​—​(a lava­lier is the little microphone you sometimes see clipped to peoples’ shirts when they are interviewed on TV). I did some digging and here’s what I found.

President Vladimir Putin wearing two lavalier mics. [eng.kremlin.ru]

The word lavalier comes from the name of a mis­tress of King Louis XIV of France, Louise de La Vallière (1644-1710). She is remembered for her style and her piety​—​after having four chil­dren with the king she left the court in 1674 and spent the rest of her life as a Carmelite nun.

Portrait painting

Portrait of Louise de La Baume Le Blanc, duchesse de La Vallière et de Vaujours, painted by Jean-Pierre Franque (1774-1860) and now in the collection of the Palace of Versailles. I like to think that this portrait shows the duchess in her boudoir for an inter­view, fitted with a lavalier microphone concealed under her bodice with the invisiLav mounting system.

Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), who knew a thing or two about mistresses, fictionalised the duchess in Louise de la Val­lière, the second part of his 1847 three-part novel The Vicomte de Bra­ge­lon­ne​—​a story of action, intrigue, romance and skul­dug­gery in the court of Louis XIV. Perhaps, through the popularity of this sequel to The Three Musketeers, the name Lavallière came to signify high-class style with a dash of danger.

Untitled portrait of the Duchesse de La Vallière (front and back of a carte-de-visite published in Paris around 1865, a photographic copy of a lithograph or other print). Publication of this carte suggests that the duchess had a place in the lineup of historical celebrities that made her a popular inclusion in the parlour photo albums of the French bour­geoi­sie.

The name La Vallière crossed over into English in the late nine­teenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary records these moments of adoption and transformation:

1873​—​in an English women’s magazine, about a hat​—​White chip Lavalliere Hat. The crown is mod­er­ately high, with a rather broad brim, turned up in front and down at the back.

1916​—​in a Canadian newspaper, about a necklace​—​Our stock of mod­er­ately priced Necklets, Pendants and La Valieres is most attractive.

1942​—​in an English literary journal, about a man’s neck tie​—​His collar and ready-made tie (a lavallière).

1972​—​in an American book about word origins​—​Today the small television microphone that hangs on a cord from the neck is also called a ‘lavaliere’, taking its name from the pendant necklace.

Portrait engraving

Alexandre Dumas, 1872 etching by Paul Rayon. Here is the author in his old age, reminiscing about writing Louise de la Valliere. The stories are rolling out for the camera, and I have clipped a Sennheiser MKE2-60 lavalier mi­cro­phone to his waistcoat to catch every word. [Wikimedia Commons]

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