This past Sunday, Baltimore’s mayor lifted the curfew she placed on the city in face of the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral. The tragic death of Freddie Gray, who later died from injuries sustained while in police custody, sparked fire, in some cases literal ones, over racial inequality and police brutality in the community there, as we’ve seen in other American cities, including Ferguson, Mo., whose city name I wrote about last August.

Sparks start fires, and if etymology is any measure, curfews attempt to put them out, apparently.

Some fires you don't want to snuff. "Curfew." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Curfew.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests curfew (corfu, in Middle English, among other forms) in the early 14th century. The word is adopted from the French (Old French, also among other forms, has cuevre-fu), ultimately joining two words. The first is couvre, an imperative verb meaning “cover,” from which English gets the same word. The second is the noun feu, “fire.”

The French couvre comes from the Latin coöperīre“to cover up,” fusing the intensifying com– (“with”) and operīre, “to cover.” Covert is so descended, as is kerchief, from the French for “cover-head.” Feu is also from Latin. Here, the etymon is focus, “hearth” or “fireplace” as well as “home” and “family” in figurative senses, and source of English’s own focus.

curfew, then, is a “cover-fire.” The French expression mirrors medieval Latin terms, the OED points out, such as ignitegium and pyritegium, also words literally meaning”cover-fire.” Do you recognize that “teg” portion of the word? It’s from tegere, “to cover,” which we saw last week in my post on thug.

So, why “cover-fire”? The OED explains it was:

A regulation in force in mediæval Europe by which at a fixed hour in the evening, indicated by the ringing of a bell, fires were to be covered over or extinguished; also, the hour of evening when this signal was given, and the bell rung for the purpose.

The OED goes on:

The primary purpose of the curfew appears to have been the prevention of conflagrations arising from domestic fires left unextinguished at night.

Eventually, the original purpose of the curfew gave way to evening bells, historically issued around eight or nine o’clock, for other kinds of city orders, hence its use for the restrictions the word names today.

curfew might test the patience of 17-year-olds on Saturday nights, but, as its etymology reminds us–as Baltimore reminds us–a curfew was and is a serious business.

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Dinosaurs, roofs, & togas: An etymological thug life

We’ve had a lot of big words in the news this week, as we’ve had a lot of big events. One word in particular grabbed headlines as a word, thug, thanks to Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s use of it in reaction to violence in her city this past week.

Thug is a very loaded word, to say the least. Thanks to some great commentary in the media outlets, we’ve also learned it is a very historically complicated, coded, and nuanced term, variously and nefariously applied through the centuries–to African Americans, union busters, and Indian assassins, whom the term originally names. Merriam Webster’s Kory Stamper weighed in on The Washington Post. Megan Garber reflected on The Atlantic. Ben Zimmer zoomed in back in 2013 at Newsweek. John McWhorter offers particularly incisive and insights on the word in an NPR interview, illustrating a key point that “black people saying ‘thug’ is not like white people saying ‘thug.'”

Since her statements, Baltimore’s mayor has walked back her words, stating they “don’t have thugs in Baltimore.” Etymologically, she she might be wrong, as the origin of thug may literally be present in the very name Baltimore.

Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white.  "Thug." Doodle by me.
Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white. “Thug.” Doodle by me.


Again, I will ultimately point you to the likes of Stamper, Zimmer, Garber, and McWhorter on the evolution of thug, but the Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word (often capitalized) in 1810, naming professional assassins in India who befriended travelers only to murder them, particularly by strangulation. The word is from the Hindi ṭhag and Mahrati (spoken in Western India) ṭhag or ṭhak, naming a “cheat” or “swindler.” We can see how the Thugs’ fundamental deception lends them their name.

Most etymologists stop here, as they are appropriately conservative, given the hypothetical, if methodical, nature of historical reconstruction. But others do speculate that this Hindi ṭhag may come from the Sanskrit sthagati, “he hides,” as Eric Partridge offers.

Under ‘cover’

The Sanskrit sthagati may be uncovered, if you will, from the Proto-Indo-European (s)teg-, “to cover.” This yielded Latin’s tegere“to cover,” which is behind integument (“covering”), protect (“cover up”), and detect (“uncover,and its derivative detective). A toga is also a kind of covering derived from this root. Roofs are coverings, hence tegula, “roof tile,” which gives us tile and Tyler, an English surname and given name for “tile-maker.” Speaking of English, the Germanic languages also took up (s)teg-giving English thatch and deck. The former was used especially of roofs. The latter bedecks those halls, too.

Roof tiles date back yet before antiquity: they are veritably Jurassic. The stegosaurus, or Greek for “roof lizard,” had armored back plates that resemble roof tiles, if the Greek στέγος (“roof”) is any measure when the creature was named in the 19th century.

No roof? No shelter. No house. This appears to be reflected in Celtic languages. Welsh has ty and Irish tech, both meaning “house.” Another Irish form for “house” is tigh or , which appear in Baile na Tighe Mór or Baile an Tí Mhóir, renderings for “townland of the big house,” a village in southern Ireland whose name you might recognize as Baltimore. (Apologies to my Irish-speaking readers for butchering any of these renderings.) The American city was named for the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland and whose family estate is that “big house” in that Irish town.

Etymology does it again—if in its full, tenuous, overwrought glory here at the Mashed Radish. But, of course, the real thugs in Baltimore, the real big house in the big house, that we need to reconsider aren’t the etymological ones.

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