According to the UN, more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria, among other countries, for neighboring countries and Europe. The humanitarian crisis is complicated, dramatic, and tragic, as we so sadly observed in the toddler who washed ashore a Turkish beach.

As the international community figures out how to help the refugees, some debate has flared over what to call these humans displaced by horrible events in their homelands. At The Wall Street Journal, lexicographer Ben Zimmer weighed in on loaded history of the term refugee. 

As Ben notes, refugee, a term also contentiously employed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,

owes its roots to persecution in 17th-century France. When Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal in 1685, many thousands of Protestant Huguenots sought refuge in other countries. English-speakers quickly adopted the French “refugié.”

Finding structure in fleeing. "Apophyge."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Finding structure in fleeing. “Apophyge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in 1671. Refugees seek refuge, a word that has variously meant “shelter” and “protection” as well as “evasion,” documented by the OED around the 1400s. The source is the Latin refugium, a “place of refuge,” from the verb refugere, “to run away from.”  Refugere is formed from fugere, with related senses of “to escape” or “to flee,” connected to the noun fuga: “flight,” “escape,” “avoidance,” and “exile,” among other shades of meaning.  A related verb is fugāre, “to put into flight.” Indo-European scholars reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European root, *bheug-, “to flee.”

Fugere and fuga have run from Latin into a number of other English words. We have fugitive, “fleeing (the law).” And we have the more recondite fugacious, a term for “fleeting,” “ephemeral,” and “volatile.”  Then there is subterfugea sneaky stratagem to evade blame or reach one’s goals. Latin’s subter– means “below” or “underneath.”

Also relevant to recent headlines about the Iran nuclear deal is centrifuge. The earliest form in English, centrifuge, was an adjective, “center-fleeing.” Isaac Newton coined the term centrifugus in his groundbreaking studies of mechanics. He also counted its opposite, centripetus, “center-seeking,” which yields centripetal.

The current refugee crisis is wrenching, but there may be hope yet, if Germany and etymology are any measure. Fugere and fuga also generated febrifuge, an old term for a “fever reducer.” Febris is Latin for “fever.” Related are feverfew and featherfew, names for a plant historically used to help fight fevers. And we have the beauty of a fugue, whose defining  counterpoint suggested “flight” in its original Italian formulation.

But it’s going to take a lot more than music and medicine to resolve the crisis. It’s going to require systematic structure and support – across the world, not to mention within Syria. Much like what is provided by a surprising architectural cognate of refugee: Sturdy and load-bearing pillars or columns, whose apophyges curve from the shaft into the capital or base. The word is from the Greek ἀποϕυγή (apophyge), “escape,” from a verb (φεύγωmeaning “to flee,” describing the way a column’s shaft “escapes” into its head or base.

Apophyge_Ink on Paper_scribblesm ∫ r ∫


11 thoughts on “refugee

  1. I was looking up “refugee” in my old Welsh dictionary which in Welsh is ffoadur (“ffo” from Latin “fuga” plus agent suffix “-adur”) and noticed one of the English synonyms included the word “runagate” – never heard of that word before?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I did look up “runagate” later which confirmed that it is a corruption of “renegade” as you surmised.
        French has quite a few mostly technical and dated adjectives formed with “-fuge” as a suffix with the meaning of ‎“-fleeing” along the same lines as ‘centrifuge’:
        cimicifuge – insect repellent
        déifuge – god repellent
        ignifuge – fireproof, fire-retardant
        nidifuge – ‘fleeing the nest’
        météorifuge – ‘drug that fights against bloating’
        ténifuge – tapeworm repellent
        vermifuge – worm repellent

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is an interesting and diverse list, what with “déifuge” and “météorifuge.” Too bad the suffix didn’t become productive in English. I wonder if there is a more ‘native’ equivalent?


      3. The suffix “-fuge” in English doesn’t have an instantly recognisable or inherent meaning as it does to Francophones where in French an “enfant en fugue” (runaway child) “faire une fugue” (runs away) from the verb “fuguer” (to run away) and I can’t think of any thing that could be suggested as a more ‘native’ equivalent? Closest I can think of would be something akin to “elope” (French v. s’enfuir; n. fugue amoureuse).

        Liked by 1 person

      4. We do have “bug off” or stronger expressions. Certain brands or products stateside will use “-off” or “-away,” to boot, to express the repellent concept.


      5. Ah, sorry. I slightly misread your “I wonder if there is a more ‘native’ equivalent?” reply and was thinking more generally when I suggested “(e)lope” as a more native equivalent for the Latinate suffix usage of “-fuge”. Bearing this in mind I’d suggest that there already are words in English with a quasi-suffix comparable to some of the French “-fuge” suffixed ‘x-repellent’ words ie. “cimicifuge”, “ténifuge”, “vermifuge” (insect/tapeworm/worm repellent) namely the “-bane” formed vernacular plant names: bugbane, dogbane, fleabane, henbane, mousebane, ratsbane (arsenic), sowbane, wolfsbane.


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