As The New York Times reported in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in the US:
Including the worst mass shooting of the year, which unfolded horrifically on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been wounded in such attacks this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings, the databases indicate.
“More than one a day,” the paper starkly observes.
As we search for the killers’ motives in an effort understand this ruinous pattern, we turn, too, to the victims – these 462 victims – taken from their families.
Does the origin of this word victim have anything to teach us?
First, a disclaimer. In the wake of so much senseless death and violence, the original meaning of victim in the English language can seem just simply cruel. I in know way intend to disrespect any victims or their families based on its historical definition. On the contrary, I feel that the history of the word only reminds us that 462 is not a statistic – it’s a tragedy, it’s an emergency.
The word victim originally referred to a very different kind of victim: an animal sacrifice. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word at the very end of the 1400s, when victim occurs in religious contexts and names a “living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power.”
Providing an important clue to the word’s development, the OED also cites Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage, a sort of Anglo-Christian travelogue:
Of sacrificing there were from the beginning two kinds, the one called Gifts or oblations of things without life: the other Victims (so our Rhemists have taught us to English the word Victima) slaine sacrifices of birds and beasts.
In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the Rhemists – who were exiled English Catholics in Douai, France and who may have viewed themselves as victims, in the later sense of the word, of religious persecution – rendered a pro-Catholic and Latin-heavy translation of the Bible in the wake of the Reformation. This is known as the Douay-Reims Bible.
(As a lexical aside, Purchas’ verbal use of English strikes me as a wonderfully English-y move and quite apt for the passage.)
This victim derives directly from the Latin victima, which, like its Rhemist gloss, refers to an “animal sacrifice” and “sacrifice” more generally. The ultimate origin of victima is not so clear, but etymologists have attempted several connections.
Previously, I’ve assumed this victima was related to vincere, “to conquer,” whose participial form is victus (“conquered”). This verb gives the English language victor, victory, convict, convince, and invincible, among others. I’m in good company: In his Fasti, Ovid (poetically) explains that victima is so named for the animal sacrifice killed by the right-hand of the victor (dextrā victrice, “with a victorious right-hand”). This stands in contrast to hostia, sacrifices slain by the hostile enemy who has been conquered. Ovid’s etymology advances no further than the resemblance of the forms.
The likes of Barnhart and Klein have suggested victim may be cognate to the Gothic weihs, “holy,” and the Germanic weihen, “to consecrate,” even proposing possible Sanskrit kin. The American Heritage Dictionary points to a Proto-Indo-European *weik–, “consecrated” or “holy,” noting it appears “[i]n words connected with magic and religious notions in Germanic (German Weihnacht(en), Christmas), and perhaps Latin.”
Further efforts even connect the root to English’s own witch, wile, and guile, but where this Latin victima ultimately came from is indeed beguiling.
By the middle of the 1600s, victim begins referring to people – not sacrificed but put to death or tortured, the OED explains, with shades of oppression and injustice. Over the course of the 1700s, victim lessens in intensity, used also to refer to persons suffering more generally. Hence, the victim of a crime or disease.
A victim mentality?
In the context of the 462 victims lost this year (so far, we must sadly qualify), let’s hope the word victim never lessens in its intensity for us.
Etymology, obviously, doesn’t stop such violence. But language does matter, as we’ve seen in our public discourse. What constitutes terrorism? Who gets called a terrorist and who gets called a loner? What does it mean to refer to a long gun instead of an assault rifle? Why must the very name Syed set so many people off? What are the consequences of the phrase radical Islam?
So, today, when I look to the history of the word victim, I see victim as a tragic sacrifice made in vain to some nameless hate, to some evil, existential chaos – as well as to our own collective inaction. And while Proto-Indo-European roots are speculative, perhaps at least even the faintest connection to “holy” can remind us of the sacredness of human lives. All 462 of them.
m ∫ r ∫