Fast Mash

  • Hostage comes into English from the French in the 13th century, when it meant handing over a person to another party as a pledge to fulfill an undertaking
  • It might come from Latin’s obses (hostage, pledge, security, guarantee), literally someone “sitting before” an enemy
  • Or it might be from Latin’s hospes, a word can that could be both “host” and “guest,” as well as “stranger” 

In the past few weeks, hostage has been a busy word–or political metaphor, I should say. You may have feelings about it, one way or the other. President Obama has taken a particular liking to it in his rhetoric, but, according to analysis by the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics, Teddy Roosevelt can claim its first documented presidential use in his Second Annual Message to Congress on December 2, 1902:

The isthmian canal will greatly increase the efficiency of our Navy if the Navy is of sufficient size; but if we have an inadequate navy, then the building of the canal would merely be giving a hostage to any power of superior strength.

First off, isthmian? Way to go, Teddy. Speak softly and use obscure adjectives.

Second, giving a hostage? I thought we talk about taking hostages? It looks like we should look into this recent buzzword, hostage.


Historically, hostage held a different meaning–a subtle but important difference. As the OED defines it, a hostage denoted a:

pledge or security given to enemies or allies for the fulfilment of any undertaking by the handing over of one or more persons into their power; the standing, state, or condition of the persons thus handed over.

Let’s pretend you are Ancient Rome and I am the Celts. We are negotiating some kind of treaty after you conquered me. (Enjoy it while you last, Rome.) In drawing up a treaty, you might receive hostages from me to ensure that I do not reinitiate battle, that I hand over control over a territory, or some such. When the terms of the treaty are met, the hostage is released. Note that this was a tactic used among allies, too, though surely with different terms.

Have you ever viewed an apartment where the manager held onto your license until the tour ended? Think of that license as “in hostage.” (This is the best modern analog I could conjure up.) The Online Etymology Dictionary and Wiktionary date the modern sense of hostage–involving the criminal seizure of a person–to the 1970s.

When it comes to its origin, etymologists are negotiating two possible sources. Hostage is first attested in the late 13th century, from the Old French ostage and hostage.

On one account, the French hostage ultimately derives from the Latin obsidatus, or “hostage-ship,” itself from obses, or “hostage, guarantee, pledge, bail.” Obses joins ob– (a versatile prefix, here meaning “before”) and a form of the root sed- (meaning “to sit”). Skeat helpfully glosses obses as “one who remains behind with the enemy.”

On another account, hostage finds its root in Latin’s hospes, a productive little word that could mean “host, entertainer, guest, visitor, friend,” or “stranger.” Here, the sense of hostage rests in the idea of some kind of host receiving, guaranteeing, and lodging the hostage.

Mother of everything from hospital to hotel to a Eucharistic* or parasitic host, Latin’s hospes is, well, a conflicted word. We might even call it a contranym, a word that is its own opposite. As you might have gathered, it can mean both “host” and “guest.” It can mean “friend” and “stranger.” Related to it is hostis, which means “enemy,” but also “stranger,” and gave us words like hostility. At root is the Proto-Indo-European *ghosti-, or “strange.” Ghost is not related but guest is. It’s also at the root of the first element of the Greek xenophobia, with xenos meaning “guest, host,” or “stranger.”

Historical linguists have posited a yet more ancient reconstruction, *hosti-potis or *gʰost(i)potis. This roly-poly of a root literally meant “lord of strangers,” with *potis (or *poti-) as the Proto-Indo-European for “owner, master, husband, host,” or “powerful.” It’s also the father of words like potent and possible Potent–how little you have changed. Now that’s powerful.

Lord of Strangers 

Maybe that’s what we need in these times of shutdown, of “digging in” and “lurching along”–a lord of strangers, a host and hostel to render strange guests as friends.

Lord of strangers–it’s for me hard not to think of Chaucer’s Host. (A hospital was originally an inn, after all.) Or a feasting hall, dizzy with wine, dance, song, and the epic stories that were born before and will yet outlast our memories, told by all of our many Homers.

Whose name in Greek, Homeros, it turns out, is the same as homeroswhich, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, may have meant “blind”–and, well, “hostage,” but in this sense of “going with a companion.”

These days, I think we all could deal with less hostages and more companions.

*I can’t resist this gem I found on the origin of the Catholic Eucharistic host. From Shipley’s Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots:

The ‘host’: bread consecrated at the Eucharist, is from [Latin] ‘hostia’: a victim for sacrifice, from ‘hostis’: stranger. Strange are the turns of human thought.

m ∫ r ∫

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