Panache (French) literally means a plume or tuft of feathers and comes from the Latin pinnaculum, ‘small wing or peak’ which is the diminutive of penna, ‘feather’ (from which we get quill and pen).
The figurative sense of panache – charisma, dash, flair, flamboyant courage – is a reference to King Henry IV of France, hedonist and military leader, who encouraged his troops to follow the white feather (panache blanc) on his helmet as they rode into battle.
Panache as an ideal finds its embodiment in the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, in Edmond Rostand’s play (1897). Apparently, before Rostand created the character of Cyrano, panache was not a good thing to possess, in fact it was a dubious quality. Post Cyrano, having panache was an asset and the play, in translation, introduced English audiences to this concept.
Cyrano: soldier, musician, poet and brilliant duelist, believes himself unloveable because of his large nose, which denies him his ‘dream of being loved by even an ugly woman’ (!). In love with beautiful and wealthy Roxanne but certain he will be rejected by her because of his appearance, he instead supports and promotes her relationship with the handsome but witless cadet Christian. Posing as Christian, Cyrano writes clever, romantic letters to Roxanne, which he then delivers to her on Christian’s behalf, through the thick of battle.
The word is notably mentioned at the play’s tragic end. As Cyrano is dying, he claims that there is one thing he will take with him as he leaves the world: his panache.
(Image: Cyrano de Bergerac performed by Darkhorse Theatre, Nashville, available here)