Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant leads all films with 12 nominations for the 88th Academy Awards, and it has already racked up several Golden Globes. The movie has put the unusual word revenant on the tip of a lot of tongues, with many of us asking as we see it in headlines, "What the heck does it mean?"
With its echoes of revealed and revived, revenant sounds like a word we ought to know, and those words' associations with "seeing again" or "seeing in a new way" or "returning to life" do not put us far from understanding revenant's meaning.
From the French revenir, revenant refers to someone who has returned after a long absence. And by absence, we're not talking about a trip to the grocery store. Usually, the revenant has returned from the world beyond the grave.
The word came into English from French sometime around 1814, when it was used in the novel Rosanne; or, A father's labour lost, by Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, which introduced the revenant-ghost connection.
Leonardo DiCaprio's character in The Revenant is no ghost, though he may appear to be one to his comrades who accidentally buried him alive. But his return might bring to mind another French-speaking story in which a man thought to be dead comes back to surprise those he left behind — in the form of a 16th century peasant Martin Guerre, who returned to his family after a long absence, only to be revealed to be an impostor.
Among other dramatic adaptations over the centuries, that story produced the French film, Le retour de Martin Guerre. It was translated directly for its English release as The Return of Martin Guerre, thereby missing the opportunity of using revenant in either tongue. To which we can only say: tant pis (too bad!).