Voltaire and Frederick the Great: Puzzle Pals?

frederick and voltaire

One of the most curious – and tumultuous – friendships in history was that of Frederick the Great and Voltaire.

Voltaire, the 18th-century philosopher and writer, never shied from criticizing the monarchy in his outspoken defenses of civil liberties. That makes it all the more curious that he became friends with the Prussian King Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great.

They bonded over a shared interest in the arts — a passion for Frederick all his life, despite his father’s disapproval.

From Joshua Figueroa’s marvelous article on KMFA.org:

Through Frederick’s public admiration, Voltaire was given a status few other philosophers of the era had. Likewise, Voltaire helped spread the word of Frederick’s flattering image as a philosopher-king.

As it turns out, they were mutual wordplay enthusiasts as well.

The story goes that Frederick the Great wanted to invite Voltaire to lunch, but did so with a rebus:

the question

Voltaire replied simply:

the answer

Which left Frederick confused as to why Voltaire would reply in German. Voltaire retorted that he hadn’t.

There’s a lot going on here, all to do with how things sound when said aloud.

Let’s look at Frederick’s message first:

the question

You have the letter P above the number 1 and the word Si above the number 100, with the letter a between them.

Anyone familiar with rebuses knows that a horizontal line between two words means “over/above” or “under.”

But remember that we’re working in French. So that’s un for 1 and sous for under. Un sous p.

Aloud you get un souper, or “a supper.”

Following the same logic, you’ve got 100 (cent) under (sous) si, which sounds like Sanssouci, Frederick’s castle.

Put it all together, and it’s the lunch invite Frederick intended, souper à Sanssouci. Pretty clever.

But what about Voltaire’s reply?

the answer

It sure looks like the German word for yes.

But if you’re very literal about what you’re seeing, you’ve got a large J and a small A.

Large in French is grande (as Starbucks customers know). Small in French is petit.

J grande A petit.

Or, said aloud, J’ai grand appétit. Which means “I have a great appetite.”

You know, I’m starting to see why these two became pals.


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