Last post, I considered the origin of refugee. The word comes from Latin, as we saw, though so many of the actual refugees are fleeing Syria and other Middle Eastern and North African countries to seek asylum in Europe. Here, let’s seek the origin of asylum.
In my experience, asylum evokes two phrases in the English language: political asylum and insane or lunatic asylum. The latter has largely and duly fallen out of use, but both terms are documented around the middle of the 19th century.
The earliest record of asylum in English comes in the form of asyle, attested in the late 1300s in Wycliffe’s Bible. Asylum is recorded by the early 1400s. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, an asylum initially was “a sanctuary or inviolable place of refuge and protection for criminals and debtors, from which they cannot be forcibly removed without sacrilege.” Over the next 200 years, the word became more general in its sense of “refuge.” Now, the word has again narrowed, this time to the political and humanitarian rather than the religious or psychological.
Where did English find asylum? Asyle comes from French via Latin’s asȳlum while English re-borrowed asylum directly from the same. Latin, in turn, took asȳlum from the Greek ἄσῡλον (asylon), a “refuge” or “sanctuary.” This word is formed from the adjective ἄσῡλος (asylos), “safe from violence,” “inviolable,” or “seeking protection.” Now, ἄσῡλος itself has two parts: ἄ (“not,” “without”) and σύλη/σύλον (syle/sylon). Connected to a verb meaning “to strip the armor off a slain enemy,” this σύλον ultimately names a maritime concept, according to Liddell and Scott: “The right of seizing the ship or cargo of a foreign merchant to cover losses received through him.”
For many of today’s refugees, it also comes down to ships – although in a very different manner, of course – as they risk perilous passage across the Mediterranean, hoping for asylum.