This past Sunday, Baltimore’s mayor lifted the curfew she placed on the city in face of the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral. The tragic death of Freddie Gray, who later died from injuries sustained while in police custody, sparked fire, in some cases literal ones, over racial inequality and police brutality in the community there, as we’ve seen in other American cities, including Ferguson, Mo., whose city name I wrote about last August.

Sparks start fires, and if etymology is any measure, curfews attempt to put them out, apparently.

Some fires you don't want to snuff. "Curfew." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Curfew.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests curfew (corfu, in Middle English, among other forms) in the early 14th century. The word is adopted from the French (Old French, also among other forms, has cuevre-fu), ultimately joining two words. The first is couvre, an imperative verb meaning “cover,” from which English gets the same word. The second is the noun feu, “fire.”

The French couvre comes from the Latin coöperīre“to cover up,” fusing the intensifying com– (“with”) and operīre, “to cover.” Covert is so descended, as is kerchief, from the French for “cover-head.” Feu is also from Latin. Here, the etymon is focus, “hearth” or “fireplace” as well as “home” and “family” in figurative senses, and source of English’s own focus.

curfew, then, is a “cover-fire.” The French expression mirrors medieval Latin terms, the OED points out, such as ignitegium and pyritegium, also words literally meaning”cover-fire.” Do you recognize that “teg” portion of the word? It’s from tegere, “to cover,” which we saw last week in my post on thug.

So, why “cover-fire”? The OED explains it was:

A regulation in force in mediæval Europe by which at a fixed hour in the evening, indicated by the ringing of a bell, fires were to be covered over or extinguished; also, the hour of evening when this signal was given, and the bell rung for the purpose.

The OED goes on:

The primary purpose of the curfew appears to have been the prevention of conflagrations arising from domestic fires left unextinguished at night.

Eventually, the original purpose of the curfew gave way to evening bells, historically issued around eight or nine o’clock, for other kinds of city orders, hence its use for the restrictions the word names today.

curfew might test the patience of 17-year-olds on Saturday nights, but, as its etymology reminds us–as Baltimore reminds us–a curfew was and is a serious business.

m ∫ r ∫ 

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