The long, etymological trek of “caravan”

A so-called caravan has arrived at the US border after trekking thousands of miles across Mexico from Central America. Now numbering in the hundreds, the people, including many women and children, are seeking asylum in the US from violence back home.

Caravan came to prominence earlier in April after Donald Trump tweeted an ominous reference to the group as it made its way to the border. The term has since spread in the media reporting on the migration news.

The asylum seekers have, indeed, come a long way in their efforts to find some safety—and so, too, has the word caravan travelled from afar.

A modern desert caravan (Pixabay)

Van, from cara- to mini-

Caravan enters English in the late 16th century. It specifically referred to a group of people, such as merchants or pilgrims, traveling together for security as they made their way across Eastern or North African deserts.

We can find the term earlier in Middle French (caravane) and Medieval Latin (caravanna), apparently picked up during the Crusades from the Persian karvan, which also named  a caravan in its original sense.

The deeper roots of the Persian karvan aren’t clear. Ernest Klein offers the Old Iranian karabhah, a “young camel” or “elephant,” perhaps fitting for some caravans’ historic mode of transport. Indo-European scholars attempts *koro-, “war,” which produced harry, harbor, Harold, Henry, and herald down the Germanic line. This etymology suggests the ancient caravan was a kind of “host.”

By the late 17th century in English, caravan generalized to any traveling group, apparently associated with a covered carriage used to transport them or their wares. Thomas Blount records this caravan in his 1674 Glossographia, noting it as a “corrupt” colloquialism for a type of wagon carrying people in and out of London.

Caravan went on to name a “house trailer” and by the 1820s was clipped to van, originally a covered vehicle for transporting goods. By the 1950s, van was given a new prefix to yield minivan.

In contemporary use, minivan often implies a suburban existence—safe from some caravan of migrants crowding the US border.

There’s no doubt Trump’s caravan, a word choice he apparently got from a Fox News story, is meant to sound threatening and dangerous. And caravan is indeed no stranger to undertones.

In the early 1600s, caravan could name a fleet of Turkish or Russian merchant vessels. In the late 1600s, caravan was thieves’ cant for “plunder.” In the late 1700s, Native Americans were described as moving in caravans, a sense extended to caravans of packhorses and wagons of migrants moving West. And in the 1800s, caravans referred to traveling bands of Roma. 

People traveling in caravans find strength and safety in numbers, but it’s also easy to fan fear when we describe a group of outsiders as a caravan based on their numbers.

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