Sometimes etymologies just drive home the point perfectly.
Ferguson, Missouri is named for one, William B. Ferguson, who allowed a railroad to go through his land in 1855. A train depot thereafter built there was named for him as part of the deal. The city–and now central station of an urgent debate on police militarization and racial inequality in the United States–grew from there.
This debate–this unrest–has thrust words like protest, curfew, and loot into my etymological spotlight. But perhaps it’s the origin of Ferguson itself that is most illuminating.
Ferguson is a Scottish surname. It’s Gaelic in origin, meaning “son of Fergus.” Fergus (or Fearghus) is a given name that combines two words. The first component, fer, means “man.” The second, gus, means “strength” or “ability.”
Fer has many friends, such as Latin’s vir (“man”), source of English virile and virtue, among others. It lives on, too, in world–and in the first part of werewolf–from its Old English iteration, wer.
At root is the Proto-Indo-European *wi-ro-, meaning, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, “man.” As the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) comments: “The reconstructed word *wi-ro-, a derivative of *the root weiə-, ‘to be vigorous,’ was used especially of men in their capacity as warriors or as slaves. (Slaves were often captured warriors.)”
Gus has also kept good company. We saw it before in disgust. The base is the Proto-Indo-European *geus-, with the curious dual meanings of “taste” and “choose.” Choose and choice are descendants, as we saw, down the Germanic line, while the Italic route yielded gusto and gustatory.
In the case of Fergus, it features the Celtic *gustu-, used in personal names. So, Fergus, the AHD observes, means “having the strength of men,” via Old Irish gus for “strength.”
So, Fergus is literally “man-strength.” And the question Ferguson, Missouri is asking us is, in many ways, what really constitutes “having the strength of men”?