strategy & target

Another war, another abstraction–except for those who are actually suffering through it. For the fortunate rest of us, how might terms like strategy and target, which have been consuming a lot of bandwidth recently, become more concrete? Perhaps etymology can aid our understanding.


"Strategy." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Strategy.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Today, a strategy is employed by a general or army commander, but in Ancient Greek, a strategos was the actual “general” or “army commander.”

The word is composed of two parts. The first is stratos, “army” or “multitude,” literally meaning “that which his spread out,” referring to the way an army was spread out in an encampment. The second is from the verb agein, “to lead” or “drive.” Hence, we have strategos, a “leader of an army.”

stratagem, which predates strategy back to the 15th century, is the “artifice” used to “surprise the enemy” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]).

Cognates to stratos are, well, widespread: strain, structure, instrument, industry, stratum, street, sternum, and strew are examples, as are streusel and perestroika. At root is the Proto-Indo-European *sterə-, “to spread.”

Driving agein is the Proto-Indo-European *ag-, ‘to drive,” “draw,” or “move.” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots [AHD]). This root saw a great deal of action: act, for one, and all of its related forms, as well as agentagile, cogentessay, navigateprotagonistaxiomagony, and demagogue, to highlight a few.


"Target." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Target.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Target was a “light round shield” (ODEE) in the 14th century, a diminutive of the archaic targe, a general term for a light shield in Old English. Targe is from the French and is Germanic in origin, with cognates variously signifying “edge” or “border” (of a shleld). The ultimate origin has no clear target. The AHD, though, offers a Proto-Indo-European root in *dergh-, meaning “to grasp,” which would have been done to a targe.

In the middle of the 18th century, we see evidence for a target signifying something “marked with concentric circles to be used as a butt”(ODEE), or the target of an arrow in archery. And yes, that butt is where we get the expression “butt of a joke,” as in, a joke’s target. But why did the sense of target so evolve? I can’t quite hit the mark on this one, but targes were often constructed and designed involving concentric circles, not to mention that they were used in jousting, so some sort of transference is likely to have occurred. Indeed, as Skeat comments, “The mark to fire at is named from its resemblance to a small shield.”

War…What Is It Good For? 


Now, strategy may evoke chess and target discount retail (for my American and Canadian readers). From the political to the academic, the words have become wildly successful metaphors for goals, whether in terms of how to achieve them or what to aim for. They are far from the generals and shields of their etymologies–and this metaphorical metamorphosis is precisely how many words change. So ingrained they are into our language and thinking that many may even consider them dead metaphors: We don’t need to know their source imagery to understand what they mean, although their active military meanings may challenge that characterization.

Widespread indeed are military metaphors in English, as we also observed in my post on champion, but as armed conflicts wage on–inevitably, fatiguingly, and, as is all too real, too remotely and abstractly for the average, first-world civilian consciousness like my own–the concreteness of an etymology might serve as some small reminder of war’s reality.

m ∫ r ∫

9 thoughts on “strategy & target

  1. Both Portuguese and Spanish (Catalan: “darga”) have the word “adarga” for a type of leather shield (Escudo confeccionado de cuero, de forma ovalada o representando un corazón – shield made of leather in the form of an oval or representing a heart) which came from Arabic درقه (daraqah) into the languages via Andalusian Arabic الدارقة (ad-dārqa, “the shield”)


    1. I came across an extended note on this from Skeat. His etymology upholds what you present, and he doesn’t take much pains to hide his astonishment that previous Romance etymologists (Diez, Cotgrave) attempted to link the Germanic-based “target” to what the Arabic-based “adarga.”


      1. Sometimes coincidences really are just that, coincidences. I have a copy of a small pamphlet of words supposedly showing a shared relationship between Hebrew and Welsh noticed when the bible was translated which I’ve never investigated in too much depth knowing straight away at first glance that they hadn’t included the Hebrew vowel diacritical signs.

        Back on target, so to speak. I noticed that in some of the Slavic languages they also have a similar “targe” word for varying senses of the word “target” Czech: terč – Polish: tarcza – Slovenian: tarča running along side a counterpart word for “target” in Czech: cíl – Polish: cel – Slovenian: cilj.


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