This past Sunday, Greece voted “No” to the terms – or more austerity measures or policies, as many describe them – of a new bailout from its international creditors. While modern Greece’s economic austerity may be due to the fact that it is in debt to its creditors, the origin of the word austerity is in debt to Ancient Greece.
In its economic sense of “restraint in public spending,” the OED first attests austerity in a famous 1937 declaration by economist John Maynard Keynes in the London Times: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity of the treasury.” This term became more widely popular, the OED observes, during the rationing of the Second World War.
Austerity, of course, is a noun form of austere, first appearing in the late 14th century. The OED cites it in Wycliffe’s Bible, where it used to describe a “stern disposition.” Indeed, austere was early on confused with stern, thus appearing as austerne. Stern has a different origin.
The English austere comes from the French austere, in turn from the Latin austērus. As is often the case, the Latin is owed to the Greek: here, αὐστηρός (austeros). Across all of these languages, austere has not been so austere, semantically speaking, variously describing something “strict,” “severe,” “rough,” “harsh,” or “bitter,” much like a very astringent wine.
Indeed, some of the earliest uses of the Greek αὐστηρός, according to the likes of Liddell and Scott, refer to foods and wines “making the tongue dry.” The Greek αὐστηρός is ultimately formed on αὖος (auos), “dry.” Indo-European linguists have derived this word from the Proto-Indo-European *saus-, “dry.”
The hypothetical root *saus- also produced the English sear as well as the more archaic sere, whose earliest senses are “dry” and “withered.” Around the corner is the month of August, once referred to as Sere month in English. The reddish-brown color sorrel has also been connected to this root.
After hitting too much of the *saus-, I suppose, one should really want to dry out.