Laces and lashes: the origin of “scourge”

In the wake of the Paris attacks, world leaders have been condemning the scourge of terrorism. It is a powerful and forceful word, one we reserve for the most extraordinary of calamities and afflictions. But it might just have a very ordinary origin. Let’s have a look at the etymology of scourge.

Shoelaces that just won’t stay tied can be a real scourge, etymologically speaking. “Scourge.” Doodle by me.


Scourge has been lashing the English language since the early 1200s. Back then, it meant “whip,” particularly one used for punishment. By the late 1300s, a scourge was “a thing or person that is an instrument of divine chastisement,” as the OED explains. (And you thought a spanking was rough.)

Today, a scourge is not necessarily religious in its connotation, though it can feel biblical in its proportions, such is the sense of “great suffering” it inflicts.

In 1066, after the Normans scourged the English in battle, they also scourged English in language, so to speak. Scourge develops from the Anglo-French escorge, related to or derived from the Old French escorgiee, also “whip.”

For the origin of this French escorgiee, there are two arguments, both taking us back to Latin.

The first argues for the Vulgar Latin *excoriāta, “whip,” from the Latin verb, excoriāre, “to strip off the hide.” This verb joins ex- (“off”) and corium (“skin, hide”). An excoriation, so derived from this verb, is one (tongue) lashing you definitely want to avoid. And Ernest Weekley doesn’t ease our pain here: “It is uncertain whether the hide was [originally] that of the implement (cowhide) or the sufferer.”

The second argues for the Vulgar Latin *excorrigia, “whip,” in this case fusing the same Latin ex- with corrigia, a “shoelace.” Now, the Ancient Romans did wear some wicked kicks, involving substantial thongs of leather that strapped the shoe to the foot. So, the connecting sense here is of a “leather strip,” which we can crack as a “whip.” For this corrigia, philologists point to Celtic cognates, citing the Old Irish cuimrech, a “fetter.” This suggests a possible Gaulish origin for the Latin word and the Proto-Indo-European root *reig-, “to bind,” which may also have produced English’s nautical rig.   

If scourge’s possible origin in “shoelace” is any measure, even the most mundane of objects – and words – can be come truly extraordinary in human hands – and on human lips.

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Making ☮ : Where does the peace symbol come from?

On this blog, I usually write about the origins of words. Today, I want to write about the origins of symbols, because sometimes words utterly fail us. I think this has been the case following the terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday.

In the aftermath of the attacks, a powerful symbol emerged:

Jean Jullien, “Peace for Paris,” Nov. 13, 2015, Twitter.

Where did this symbol come from?

French artist Jean Jullien inked this symbol and posted it to Twitter on the night of the attacks, captioning it “Peace for Paris.”

As Jullien has articulated in subsequent interviews, the symbol’s power rests in its simplicity: he joins an iconic symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, with an iconic symbol of peace. From a few mere but inspired strokes, one man’s “very raw, spontaneous reaction” evoked universal solidarity.

And where did the peace symbol (or sign) come from?

Designer and activist Gerald Holtom created the symbol in April 1958 as part of the nuclear disarmament movement in England. It debuted in a protest march from London to Aldermaston, where nuclear weapons are still being maintained today. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament officially adopted the image for its mission and, following coverage of the protests, it travelled abroad and became a symbol for other causes, particularly as promoted by antiwar protests in the US.

The are several layers to its meaning. According to Ken Kolsbun’s Peace: The Biography of a Symbol, Holtom superimposed the flag semaphores for letters N (for “nuclear”) and D (for “disarmament”) inside a circle, which represented Earth.

Semaphore signs for for D and N. Image from The New York Times.

But Holtom later wrote that, inspired by the peasant in Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, the image depicted himself in the despair he was feeling at the time:

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The focal peasant actually has his arms raised up in surrender, but Holtom’s point is clear. 

Curiously, Goya’s painting depicts Spanish resistance in the Napoleonic Wars, during which the French forces developed the semaphore systems believed to have originated the modern signals for Holtom’s N and D.

As we’re sadly already seeing with Jullien’s symbol, Holtom’s symbol has not been without controversy. Opponents to protestors who’ve emblazoned their mission with the symbol have variously attempted to link it to paganism (the footprint of a witch or crow) or Satanism (an inverted cross with broken arms). Even today the symbol is lampooned as a “chicken footprint” in an association of pacifism with cowardice.

Holtom’s and Jullien’s images have yet more in common: Neither are trademarked, and deliberately so. Created as idiosyncratic expressions of two individuals’ feelings, they speak – freely, in more ways than one – to more fundamental and transcendent human sentiments.

As reported in Peace News, Holtom wished his symbol was inverted, suggesting a more hopeful position with the forked lifted raised up and out. His original image prevailed. But while we don’t associate Holtom’s symbol with despair in spite of its origin story, Jullien’s take on it has certainly cast away any lingering doubts. For now, those central lines of the peace symbol stand tall as the Eiffel Tower over the city of Paris, over the world – the great heights of love and light, of strength and solidarity, unshakeable.

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