The many uses of the term ‘asylum’

Earliest this month, we discussed the use of articles and how they can sometimes change the meaning of something.

That’s the case with a word much in the news these days: “asylum.” See how a two-letter article changes the meaning of a sentence:

“That woman needs asylum.”

“That woman needs an asylum.”

As the so-called caravan of Central Americans continues to approach the United States, the question of what “asylum” is and who should get it has become a political football.

It’s a linguistic one as well.

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The original “asylum” was a “sanctuary or inviolable place of refuge and protection for criminals and debtors, from which they cannot be forcibly removed without sacrilege,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. Its first use in English, around 1430, was in Lydgate’s Fall of Princess: This “Asilum. . .Was a place of refuge and succours. .. For to receyue all foreyn trespassours,” as one translation put it.

While this “asylum” was a sanctuary, it was not beloved of those on the outside or of those who wanted in. Who wanted to have to hide out because they committed a crime or were in debt, also considered a crime?

Over the years, though, “asylum” took on a kinder, gentler tone: Around the mid-17th century, it was thought of as a “secure place of refuge, shelter, or retreat,” the OED says, first about specific places and later in the abstract. And “asylum” had expanded its mission to being a “benevolent institution affording shelter and support to some class of the afflicted, the unfortunate, or destitute.”

That definition in the OED adds: “e.g. an asylum for the mentally ill (formerly ‘lunatic asylum’), to which the term is sometimes popularly restricted.”

If you say “she needs an asylum,” the audience might immediately assume the “asylum” sought is a mental institution. “Asylums” housed lepers and people with other communicable diseases as well, both for their protection and for the protection of the rest of the populace.

(By the way, “lunatic asylum” and “insane asylum” are now considered to be slurs of a kind, given that not everyone in “an asylum” is a lunatic or insane.)

The people who sought “asylum” in these cases were being pitied, not scorned, and protected (mostly) for their own good.

The word “asylum” is Middle English, from the Greek “asylon,” for “inviolable.” The root word, “sylon,” means “right of seizure”; adding the prefix “a” basically negates that right.

“Asylum” as a concept has always been more popular than “an asylum” as a specific place, at least in books tracked by Google. But this Google ngram shows a curious phenomenon: Appearances of “the asylum” overtook appearances of “an asylum” around 1980.

Until recently, the OED did not recognize the political nature of “asylum”; it remedied that with a draft addition in June 2001: “Refuge in a nation other than one’s own, esp. as a political refugee; the right to claim this, usually defined or restricted in law by the nation concerned.” Politics and modern events add meaning to words that sometimes take time to make their way into dictionaries.

The first OED citation for “political asylum,” from The Times of London in 1852, relates to religious and political turmoil at the time in Switzerland and France. Some of the local Swiss states, or cantons, were being governed by conservatives, and some by more radical factions. France, which had muzzled its press through much of the 19th century, was watching carefully, and was demanding the ability to reclaim any French citizens who had fled for “asylum” in Switzerland.

That citation’s refrain might sound eerily reminiscent of conditions today: “These cantons, with their free press, their political asylum, and their creed, are intolerable to the jealous eye of neighbouring despotism.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.