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.
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.