Language Corner

When usage goes out the window

February 11, 2019

The recent success of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, provides a good excuse to talk about one of author and Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer’s favorite words. “He likes the word ‘defenestrate’…with its vivid meaning of being thrown from a window,” according to The New York Timesprofile of Dreyer, who told the paper, “It’s just so weirdly specific.”

A form of that word, “defenestration,” appears just once in Dreyer’s book, as part of a footnote wondering why English needs specific words like “sesquicentennial” and “antepenultimate.” For many, “defenestration” conjures medieval images, possibly because of its association with medieval times. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, the noun first appeared in 1619 to mean “The action of throwing a person out of a window; (also) the fact of being thrown out of a window.”

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If you paid attention in history class, and if your history class covered it, you might recall the context. As the OED says, “defenestration” is frequently used “with reference to the second Defenestration of Prague, an incident in which, on the 23rd of May 1618, a group of Protestant Bohemian protestors threw two Catholic imperial officials and their secretary out of a window in Prague Castle, thus helping to precipitate the Thirty Years’ War.” (The “defenestrees” survived, thanks to a moat around the castle, but that was apparently not mitigating.)

No mention is made of the first Defenestration of Prague, which occurred in 1419 when Czech Hussites threw seven city officials from the windows of the town hall, leading to the Hussite (or Bohemian) Wars. The “Defenestration” label for the 1419 incident was probably first applied hundreds of years after the fact, which may explain why there is no earlier citation in the OED.

The German word “Fenstersturz” was first noted in 1626 or so, probably relating to the 1618 “defenestration.” The French, though, already had a verb for throwing things out the window, “défenestrer,” which the OED traces to 1564.

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A colloquial usage of “defenestration” showed up around 1955, the OED says, to mean “The dismissal or removal of a person from a position of power or authority.” Throw the bums out, yes, but not necessarily through a window. That’s how the authors of a recent Op-Ed in the Times used it, saying that President Trump’s followers “defenestrate Republicans who defy or repudiate him.”

Often, one form of a word introduced into English is quickly followed by another; a noun becomes an adjective, verb, adverb, or any combination thereof once people adopt it. Indeed, the adjective “defenestrated” followed the noun in 1620, the OED says.

“Defenestration” is a noun for an action, which is usually represented by a verb. But the verb “defenestrate” was not recorded until 1904, when it was used in an art magazine in the context of the Prague “defenestrations”: “You may still see the windows through which were thrown town councillors and others, ‘defenestrated’ with truly Slav impartiality.” The quotation marks around the past-tense verb “defenestrated” might be the author’s way of saying, “This is not a real word, but I’m using it as such.” The OED says the verb “defenestrate” is “usually humorous,” but that’s not how the art magazine used it, or how most people use it.

“Defenestrate” used colloquially to mean “dismiss, discard, or dispose of (a person or thing); esp. to remove (a person) from a position of power or authority” first appeared in 1917, the OED says, predating the similar noun by almost 40 years. Ain’t English weird?

The noun “defenestration” seems more popular than the verb “defenestrate,” at least in books tracked by Google:

In modern journalism, the verb “defenestrate” seems far more popular than the noun, and is almost always used in a political context. That’s not to say any form is popular: Nexis shows fewer than 75 instances of the verb in the past six months.

MySpace and Facebook used to have an application called “SuperPoke,” where you could send friends virtual kisses or virtual sheep, virtually hug them or virtually “defenestrate” them. That led to this Urban Dictionary definition of “defenestrate”: “Most commonly recognized as an action performed on’s ‘superpoke’ application. Usually misinterpreted as a sexual activity, it actually means to throw something/one out of a window.”

“SuperPoke” is no longer available on Facebook. Google “defenestrated” it.

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