refugee

According to the UN, more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria, among other countries, for neighboring countries and Europe. The humanitarian crisis is complicated, dramatic, and tragic, as we so sadly observed in the toddler who washed ashore a Turkish beach.

As the international community figures out how to help the refugees, some debate has flared over what to call these humans displaced by horrible events in their homelands. At The Wall Street Journal, lexicographer Ben Zimmer weighed in on loaded history of the term refugee. 

As Ben notes, refugee, a term also contentiously employed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,

owes its roots to persecution in 17th-century France. When Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal in 1685, many thousands of Protestant Huguenots sought refuge in other countries. English-speakers quickly adopted the French “refugié.”

Finding structure in fleeing. "Apophyge."  Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Finding structure in fleeing. “Apophyge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Refugee

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in 1671. Refugees seek refuge, a word that has variously meant “shelter” and “protection” as well as “evasion,” documented by the OED around the 1400s. The source is the Latin refugium, a “place of refuge,” from the verb refugere, “to run away from.”  Refugere is formed from fugere, with related senses of “to escape” or “to flee,” connected to the noun fuga: “flight,” “escape,” “avoidance,” and “exile,” among other shades of meaning.  A related verb is fugāre, “to put into flight.” Indo-European scholars reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European root, *bheug-, “to flee.”

Fugere and fuga have run from Latin into a number of other English words. We have fugitive, “fleeing (the law).” And we have the more recondite fugacious, a term for “fleeting,” “ephemeral,” and “volatile.”  Then there is subterfugea sneaky stratagem to evade blame or reach one’s goals. Latin’s subter– means “below” or “underneath.”

Also relevant to recent headlines about the Iran nuclear deal is centrifuge. The earliest form in English, centrifuge, was an adjective, “center-fleeing.” Isaac Newton coined the term centrifugus in his groundbreaking studies of mechanics. He also counted its opposite, centripetus, “center-seeking,” which yields centripetal.

The current refugee crisis is wrenching, but there may be hope yet, if Germany and etymology are any measure. Fugere and fuga also generated febrifuge, an old term for a “fever reducer.” Febris is Latin for “fever.” Related are feverfew and featherfew, names for a plant historically used to help fight fevers. And we have the beauty of a fugue, whose defining  counterpoint suggested “flight” in its original Italian formulation.

But it’s going to take a lot more than music and medicine to resolve the crisis. It’s going to require systematic structure and support – across the world, not to mention within Syria. Much like what is provided by a surprising architectural cognate of refugee: Sturdy and load-bearing pillars or columns, whose apophyges curve from the shaft into the capital or base. The word is from the Greek ἀποϕυγή (apophyge), “escape,” from a verb (φεύγωmeaning “to flee,” describing the way a column’s shaft “escapes” into its head or base.

Apophyge_Ink on Paper_scribblesm ∫ r ∫