First, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad horrifically attacked, not for the first time, his own people with chemical weapons, likely sarin gas. Then, he “fake-newsed” the horrific act by calling it a fabrication. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer—bizarrely, perversely—told reporters Hitler never gassed his people like Assad did before apologizing for his profoundly wrong statement.
It’s hard to make sense of this all, so—as this blog does in its own meager way—let’s try to make sense of it with the etymology of the word gas.
Not too many people would say they love politicians. Late-night talk show hosts and word nerds, however, are notable exceptions, ever drawing from the endless well of political speech. Recently, quagmire has taken the political – and lexical – limelight, thanks especially to Bernie Sanders’ use of it at the first Democratic debate this past week in Las Vegas, as Ben Zimmer has analyzed over at Vocabulary.com.
Let’s step – cautiously – into the origin of quagmire: Its roots just may be hard to extricate.
Quagmire has been stuck in English since 1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Back then, it referred to an “area of wet, boggy land that gives way under foot.” Thanks to how hard it can be to extricate oneself from a quagmire, its metaphorical extension is documented not long after in 1577.
Growing up, my dad loved characterizing my puerile indiscretions, if I’m to be generous, as having “mush for brains.” Perhaps he was just channeling his inner bard. Shakespeare used quagmire for something “soft, flabby, or yielding” (OED) when Talbot threatens in Henry IV of Frenchmen to “make a Quagmire of [their] mingled brains.”
Another term – and etymological clue – for quagmire is a “quaking bog,” for a bog’s ground quakes, or shakes, underfoot. Philologists like Walter Skeat, Ernest Weekly, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Klein see quagmire as nothing more than quakemire, a form of quagmire attested in the late 1500s. This makes quagmire a compound of quake and mire.
Quag is indeed a regional variant of quake, from the Old English cwacian and cweccan, which variously signified quaking, shaking, and trembling, sometimes of the teeth in fear, other times of weapons in fighting. Its ultimate origin is unknown. Many suggest that it is imitative. Can you hear quivering or shaking in quake?
As the OED offers, however, quag might be a variant of a different word: quab, a “marsh” or “bog.” Appearing in the early 1400s, this quab is reconstructed in the Old English *cwabba, which itself might just mean “to quake.” Like quake, the origin of *cwabba is unknown, but it also might be echoic. Here, the b lends a bubbling and gurgling sound effect, fitting for a swamp. English has had other quabs: the word has named, if on an obscure and rare basis, certain kinds of fish as well as sea cucumbers. Historical linguistics note connections to slimy critters (e.g., toads) in other Indo-European languages, suggesting, as the OED does, a root in “something slimy, flabby, or quivering,” certainly not out of place in swamplands.
Speaking of swamplands, mire, meanwhile, is Scandinavian in origin, emerging in Middle English and related to the Old Norse mýrr, a “bog” or “swamp.” The word is cognate to English’s own moss. Both mire and moss are taken back to an Indo-European root for swampy ground and wet vegetation found there, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains. The metaphorical mire is evidenced by the end of the 1300s.
Etymologically, we may not find terra firma with quagmire, but, when it comes to the ‘muck’ of politics, this word works on so many levels.
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.
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 asylum? Asyle 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, ἄσῡλοςitself 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 σύλονultimately 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.
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 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.”
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 subterfuge, a 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 nucleardeal 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 (φεύγω) meaning “to flee,” describing the way a column’s shaft “escapes” into its head or base.