Word Origins: Jean Nicot and Nicotine

About the history and biography of Jean Nicot the man whose name is the origin of the word nicotine.

NICOTINE (nik e'ten') n. A poisonous alkaloid, C5H4NC4H7NCH3, derived from the tobacco plant, used in medicine and as an insecticide. From nicotiana, any of various flowering tobacco plants of the genus Nicotiana, native to the Americas.

In 1559, Francis II, the 16-year-old King of France, determined that his sister, Marguerite of Valois, aged 6, should marry Don Sebastian, the King of Portugal, aged 5. To conduct the delicate negotiations, he appointed one of his ablest ministers, Jean Nicot, a notary's son of uncommon ability. Nicot was only 29, but he was a cultivated man of letters. He had begun a dictionary of the French language and had made an excellent impression on the austere Queen Catherine, mother of the young King of Portugal. Despite the abilities of the young ambassador, the negotiations failed, and the following year Francis died. However, the mission was not a complete failure. While visiting the Royal Pharmacy in Lisbon, Nicot had been given a strange plant recently brought from Florida. He cultivated it with great care, and before he left Portugal, he sent back to the queen mother, Catherine de Medicis, the 1st harvest of his tobacco plant.

It was a well-calculated gift, for Nicot had observed in Lisbon the happy effects that the "American powder" had on the general disposition of its adherents, and he also knew just how somber and bad-tempered Catherine could be. Just as he had hoped, Catherine became an enthusiastic user of what she termed the "ambassador's powder" and made it so fashionable that soon no one dared appear at court without fidgeting carelessly with his fancy box of tobacco.

Nicot also sent a small package of the powder to his friend, the Father Superior of Malta. With remarkable perspicacity, Nicot had foreseen how precious a diversion tobacco might prove to be for monks, who were endlessly occupied with songs, prayers, and responses. Nicot's friend was so zealous in spreading the use of tobacco in his order that the monks soon called it "Father Superior's powder." Nicot then returned to Paris with a whole cargo of tobacco, which proved to be a most solid foundation on which to build his fortune. It also brought him such notoriety that he became as much in fashion as the plant, which was soon referred to as nicotiana by everyone.

But fashions are fickle, and after the initial period of enthusiasm came the period of persecution. The 1st enemy was Scotland's James VI (soon to become James I of England), who fought Nicot's plant as well as papism throughout his life. Don Bartholomew of the Camara, Bishop of Granada, was offended by the discreet sneezing of his flock during his sermons. A profound theological dispute arose under Pope Urban VIII: Does a pinch of snuff savored through the nose break a fast? Pope Innocent X even went so far as to excommunicate tobacco-users.

Tobacco divided the Sorbonne and became yet another bone of contention between the Jansenists (who were for it) and the Jesuits (who were decidedly against it). The Jesuits finally conceded that tobacco might not be forbidden fruit in itself, but only when used for the satisfaction of depraved desires; that is, only those "intentionally" defying God's command by sniffing or smoking would be excommunicated! Outside France, things were even worse. Amurat IV condemned smokers to death; the Czar ordered that their noses be cut off; the Shah Sifi simply had them impaled. In Switzerland, the Senate of Berne had "smoking" inserted with "stealing" and "killing" in the Ten Commandments.

But suddenly France discovered that a simple state tax of 2 francs per 100 lbs. of tobacco brought in approximately one million francs each year. Tobacco returned to favor, at least with the Government. Nicot was able to turn his attention back to his beloved dictionary, the oldest in the French language, which was finally printed in 1600, 6 years after his death.

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