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.
“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.