Last post, I considered the origin of refugee. The word comes from Latin, as we saw, though so many of the actual refugees are fleeing Syria and other Middle Eastern and North African countries to seek asylum in Europe. Here, let’s seek the origin of asylum. 

Humans should not have to be cargo. "Cargo crates." Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Humans should not have to be smuggled like cargo. “Cargo crates.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


In my experience, asylum evokes two phrases in the English language: political asylum and insane or lunatic asylum. The latter has largely and duly fallen out of use, but both terms are documented around the middle of the 19th century.

The earliest record of asylum in English comes in the form of asyle, attested in the late 1300s in Wycliffe’s Bible. Asylum is recorded by the early 1400s. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, an asylum initially was “a sanctuary or inviolable place of refuge and protection for criminals and debtors, from which they cannot be forcibly removed without sacrilege.” Over the next 200 years, the word became more general in its sense of “refuge.” Now, the word has again narrowed, this time to the political and humanitarian rather than the religious or psychological.

Where did English find asylumAsyle comes from French via Latin’s  asȳlum while English re-borrowed asylum directly from the same. Latin, in turn, took asȳlum from the Greek ἄσῡλον (asylon), a “refuge” or “sanctuary.” This word is formed from the adjective ἄσῡλος (asylos), “safe from violence,” “inviolable,” or “seeking protection.” Now, ἄσῡλος itself has two parts: ἄ (“not,” “without”) and σύλη/σύλον (syle/sylon). Connected to a verb meaning “to strip the armor off a slain enemy,” this σύλον ultimately names a maritime concept, according to Liddell and Scott: “The right of seizing the ship or cargo of a foreign merchant to cover losses received through him.”

For many of today’s refugees, it also comes down to ships – although in a very different manner, of course – as they risk perilous passage across the Mediterranean, hoping for asylum.

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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.


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 ∫