The cutthroat origin of “massacre”

Another day, another mass shooting in the US. The latest massacre—by the latest man wielding an assault weapon—claimed the lives of 26 worshippers at a church in a small town in Texas. Today, as we try to make sense of another needless tragedy, let’s make sense of the etymology of this grisly word, massacre.

From butcher knives to assault weapons

While a massacre is a mass slaughter of people, the two words are unrelated. The latter mass ultimately goes back to the Latin massa, a “lump,” especially of kneaded dough.  

Massacre was borrowed directly from the French in the late 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests it in Robert Lindsay’s 1578 History and Chronicles of Scotland: “The xxiiij day of August…the grytt..murther and messecar of Paris wes committit.” Lindsay is referring to the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, in which Catherine de Médicis led Catholics in the slaughter of tens of thousands of French Huguenots on August 24-25, 1572. 

Francois Dubois’s painting of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Slaughter” is indeed the key word here. Earlier forms of massacre, the Old French maçacre or macecle, referred to a literal “slaughterhouse” or “butchery.” Slaughter, for its part, is first found in 1300s, from the Old Norse slatr, “killing of cattle or sheep for food,” related to slay. Butcher, also dating to about 1300, is from the French boc, “he-goat,” kin to buck.

The deeper origins of the Old French maçacre are disputed. One suggestion traces it to the Latin macellum, a “butcher shop” or “provision-market.” Another connects it to the Latin mattea, a type of “mallet,” that became massue in French and mace (the weapon with the spiky ball-and-chain) in English. Yet another roots massacre in an ancient Germanic verb meaning “to cut.” 

Today, with the phrase and incidences of mass shooting sadly on the rise in the US, the word massacre now has a historical ring to it, remembered in past mass killings like the Massacre of the Innocents, Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and so, so many more.

But as Americans become so tragically numb to mass shootings, perhaps a graphic word like massacre—with a gruesome etymology depicting human lives as no more than meat—can help keep us alive to the horrors and terrors of guns.

m ∫ r ∫

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3 thoughts on “The cutthroat origin of “massacre”

  1. How would anyone ELSE know “the horrors & terrors” of gun violence? They don’t know, which is why they don’t care. Even people who suddenly started caring about gun safety after someone in their family was killed by it didn’t care back in 1992 when I first started trying to be moderate about gun laws.
    I was actually shot, died twice before being revived, went into a coma and woke to an unforgiving world that was nothing like the one I lived in before this happened. I think it’s obvious as the midday sun that SOME people have no business w/ a gun, that the shooter’s one of them and I never stop talking about it. Until people call me “loonie” for thinking the way I do, people I’ll be quick to add, have never felt ANY of what I did on the day my lung collapsed & sent me into clinical death, or people who just stop being my friend after they hear I’m a gunshot victim. I don’t know why they do it but it DOES happen. They do the same with it that they do if they ever hear you know someone who died by intentional violence. They appear to think it’s an airborne disease and that they’ll catch ‘knowing someone who was murdered” the same way you pick up a flu: by being next to someone who’s sick w/ it and breathes in your vicinity.
    I could say volumes on the word slaughter but I won’t. The only thing I have to say is that it’s one reason I won’t eat meat.


  2. Maybe you should look up the origin and meaning of “assault weapon”. Even the military will tell you there is no such thing. AR-15’s are nothing more than semi-automatic rifles. Ban them and you are banning virtually every firearm in America. No thank you, I don’t want to live in a country full of sheep!


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