The two convicts who escaped from prison in New York almost two weeks ago still elude the grasp of authorities – quite true, too, if we look to the etymology of escape.

"Escape." Doodle by me.
“Escape.” Or something like that. Doodle by me.


If we look to its earliest form, ascape, English captured escape from the French as early as 1250. The Old French verb eschaper comes from the late Latin *excappāre, which joins ex– (“out of”) and cappa (“cape” or “cloak”). As Walter Skeat explains it, to escape is literally “to slip out of one’s cape.” For the sense of this, Ernest Weekley refers us to a Greek verb ἐκδύεσθαι (ekduesthai), a Greek verb meaning “to put off one’s clothes, escape, the idea being that of leaving one’s cloak in the clutch of the pursuer.”

The root of the late Latin cappa – caput, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kaput-, both meaning “head” – cloaks many an English word: capitol and capital, cap and the selfsame cape, biceps and triceps, captain and chief, and achieve and capitulate, to name a prominent few. The PIE *kaput- also heads up English’s own head, whose Old English predecessor, hēafod, lost some sounds along the way.


One derivative of cappa – chapel – involves a very special cape or cloak indeed, one famously left behind by St. Martin of Tours (who was also famed for helping prisoners escape, as it happens, though these prisoners were admittedly of a very different sort). For this legend, we turn from etymology to hagiography.

As the legend goes, one winter’s day, while serving against his will in Roman army in the 4th century, a young Martin came across a beggar wearing mere rags in the cold. Martin used his soldier’s sword to cut his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. That night, he dreamed that Jesus Christ was wearing that half and commented on Martin’s compassion. In the morning, the halved cloak was made whole. Frankish kings, the legend continues, kept the cloak as a miraculous relic, using it for oath-making and bringing it into battle. Eventually, certain priests guarded the sacred relic – the little cloak, or cappella – in a sanctuary. The priests were known as cappellanior chaplains, as it became in the French; the sanctuary, a chapel. This is a story literally a cappella, or “in the style of the chapel,” such is the origin of unaccompanied vocal music.

I suppose comic books get it right here: both superheroes and villains wear capes.

m ∫ r ∫


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