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?
“Words cannot express,” our leaders begin their remarks on the horrific attack in Nice, France. The carnage shocks us and saddens us into the disbelief of speechlessness. But just as words fail us, we also turn to them to make sense, some sort of sense, of tragedy. So it is with the word Nice, whose origin may raise us up, if in the smallest of ways.
Ancient Greek mariners from Phocaea, on the Aegean Turkey, founded colonies along France’s Mediterranean coast called Massalía, now Marseilles. As far as we know, some Massaliotes battled a neighboring tribe of an Italo-Celtic people, the Ligures, in 350 BC. The Greeks won, and founded a new city there. To commemorate their victory, they named their new settlement Nikaia, honoring their goddess of victory. Her name was Nike.
In addition to personifying the goddess, the word nike, or νίκη in ancient Greek, meant “victory,” including victory in battle, Olympic games, and in more general undertakings. The further roots are unknown; some suggest a pre-Greek origin, others look to an earlier Greek word meaning “strife” or “to quarrel.” Latin rendered Nikaia as Nicaea, which became Nice in French.
Nike lives on, of course, in the athletic brand, but also in Nicholas, which literally means “victory-people.” It joins nike with laos, “people.” Laos often referred to “common people,” and it gives English lay, as in a layperson.
The ancient Greeks wrote of “trim-ankled” Nike, who drove Zeus’ own chariot with her renowned speed and spread her iconic wings over victors in the battlefield. Her wings are still outspread in her famed sculpture in the Louvre, where she greet visitors as The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Her wings are outspread, too, over all the people of her namesake, Nice.