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Defenestrate

Perhaps my brain sees patterns where none exist, but this verb seems to be more than usually popular at the moment. I read recently, for example, that the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had been defenestrated by her party.

The root of the word is the Latin fenestra, a window. Architects speak of a building’s fenestration, by which they mean the style and placement of its window openings. To defenestrate, then, might be to remove or block up a window, as happened during the period of the window tax in England. But it’s never been used that way. In its earliest appearances, it referred to throwing somebody out of a window.

There have been many cases of people being so thrown as a means of execution, at least as far back as the fate of Queen Jezebel, who the Second Book of Kings says was defenestrated by Jehu. The most famous came during a confrontation in Prague Castle in May 1618 between a group of Bohemian Protestants complaining about infringements of religious freedom and regents of the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. The altercation led to two of the regents and the council secretary being thrown out of the window of the council room. An account by one of the regents, Jaroslav Martinic, says that they fell thirty cubits (13 metres or 45 feet) into the dry moat but survived. Catholic writers claimed that the three were saved by the intercession of the Virgin Mary while Protestant ones argued that they fortuitously landed on a heap of manure.

The first mention in English of its being called a defenestration is in an account by an anonymous engineer serving in the French Army at the siege of Prague in 1743. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the events of 1618 came to be known in English history books as the defenestration of Prague.

Around 1900 we start seeing defenestrate as a joking term, actual throwing not being implied. In the early 1990s or a little before it took on a colloquial sense of removing a person from office by sacking them, as happened to Margaret Thatcher:

Mr Bob Hawke, Australia’s long-serving prime minister, has been defenestrated.

Financial Times. 22 Feb. 1992. Mr Hawke had lost a leadership challenge in December 1991.

This figurative sense is either too recent or too slangy to have reached any of the print dictionaries that I’ve consulted. It has over time broadened further to mean confounded, defeated or removed. A football team that had been knocked out of a competition was said to have been defenestrated. Abandonment of a government retail prices index has been described as its defenestration. Another example:

There were some sweet moments — like the pre-ordering requests and dedications from the audience on their website — but this was a performance defenestrated by its own timidity.

Independent, 30 Jan. 2013.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Mar. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 March 2013.