Débrouillard origin: How the Zouaves defined Resourcefulness and Courage

The term "débrouillard" is as enigmatic in origin as it is in application to those to whom it describes. Scholars vaguely trace the first use of "débrouillard" to the French military in North Africa during the mid-19th century.  However through our deep research, a thorough examination of newspaper archives reveals more specific origins. For the first time we can link “débrouillard” directly to the Zouaves, a highly decorated French infantry unit originally comprised of Algerians.


Zouaves were widely valorized for their bravery, resourcefulness, and distinctive appearance through numerous battlefield exploits.  The New York Times described the Zouaves in 1860 as, “They are always first—always best; the first to begin and the last to leave.  Hard, dissolute, wayward (except with their officers), utterly regardless of right or wrong, dashing, drinking, swearing, carousing, fearless, with strong attachments and bitter hatreds, always prepared and never unready.”


After victory in the Battle of Alma during the Crimean War in 1854, French Commander in Chief, Marshal Armand de Saint-Arnaud lauded the Zouaves as “the bravest soldiers in the world.”  To honor their role in this victory, a statue of a Zouave was erected at the Pont de l’Alma in Paris, which has since become an iconic informal flood gauge of the Seine River.


The word “débrouillard” first emerged in print in 1855, noted by a French war correspondent who overheard it on a visit to Yevpatoria, Crimea.  “They seem, as my boat skipper says, to be strong débrouillards.”  (original French text: “Ils ont l’air, comme dit mon patron de canot, de solides débrouillards.”)  Around this same time, another Zouave legend was in the making when a Zouave by the name of Boris went to light his pipe, but had it shot out of his mouth.  Resourcefully as a débrouillard, Boris ripped a piece of paper from his gunpower bag and rolled a cigarette with it.  From this legend, the brand of Zig Zag rolling papers emerged with an image of “Le Zouave” distinctively as it’s icon for close to 150 years.


By 1867, "débrouillard" was still exotic enough to require explanation in Le Figaro during the French intervention in Mexico: “A zouave – a debrouillard, as they say in the regiment….”  (original French text: “Un zouave – un debrouillard, comme on dit au régiment…”)  However, the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 brought military focus onto French soil and with it, incorporated débrouillard broadly into the French vocabulary. 


Zouaves were so widely regarded that military units were formed in many other countries such as Papal States (Italy) and Poland along with units fighting on both sides of the American Civil War.  Notably, the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Monument at Gettysburg is of a Zouave, swinging his rifle overhead as a club to indicate that a Zouave will fight under any circumstances, even after ammunition is exhausted.

Today, the phrase “faire le Zouave” is still used in France as a way of describing someone who behaves wildly, acts foolish or brings attention to themselves.  It’s only fitting that a dynamic term like débrouillard could originate from the Zouaves who were such a unique military unit, in attitude and appearance, but were held in high regard for their resourceful tactics, versatility and most of all, achieving their objective. 

Let's continue to take débrouillard forward while honoring it's origin. 

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