Today, the 14th of July, marks Bastille Day in France. The holiday commemorates the same date in 1789 when citizens stormed the Bastille—a state prison, armory, and symbol of royal authority in Paris—sparking the French Revolution. But what is a bastille, and where does this word come from?
The Bastille began as a fortress in the late 14th century, and indeed, bastille means “fortress or tower” in French. According to Baumgartner and Ménard in their French Etymological Dictionary, bastille comes from the Old French bastir, which originally meant “to sew with large (loose) stitches.” This verb, they say, comes from the Frankish *basta, “hemp thread.” Over time, “sewing” was likened to “building,” which was later strengthened into “fortification.” Still, perhaps Madame Defarge was onto something with her needlework.
The Frankish *basta appears to be related to the English bast, the tough fiber of the inner bark of certain trees, while bastir (modern French, bâtir) gave English baste, “to sew loosely”—no connection to the kitchen.
Today, bastille largely refers to the historic French Bastille, but English adopted the word in the early 1400s to refer to a “fortified tower” or “fortress” as well as a kind of wheeled, wooden tower used in military sieges.
Bastille also shows up in other English words, such as battlement. While it looks like and is used in the context of battle, battlement comes from the Old French, bastillement, also “fortification.” (Latin’s battuere, “to bat or batter,” to gloss it in its own derivatives, is the ultimate source of battle.) A diminutive form of bastille, bastillon, yields bastion, an angled projection of a fortification, hence the metaphorical last bastion, or “stronghold,” standing in defense of some principle.
The Storming of the Bastille helped usher in an age of liberal democracies. Now, nearly 230 years later, under the fire of a rising authoritarianism in the world, it can feel like we are defending our own bastions of democratic values and ideals. Let’s make sure we never get down to the last.