Word of the Day: Defenestration
Etymology: de- + Latin fenestra (window)
1. Throwing of a person or thing out of a window.
2. A swift dismissal or expulsion, as from a party or office.
Last night I was taking part in one of my preferred pastimes, namely a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit with my Mensa pals. The game was well underway, at a hideaway known to our circle as Denise’s Basement Rec-Room, when the word “defenestration” reared its head.
Many strange topics rear their heads at any given Gathering of the Nerds, believe me, but in this instance one of our group, the Trickster Known as Lawrie, had just told one pun too many, and Captain Marjorie began to toss around ideas as to how to punish (or pun-ish) him — a topic which, alas, delights Lawrie no end, but that is a story for another day.
Anyway, one of the possibilities, after “Standing in the Corner” and “A Round of Beatings,” was “defenestration,” a little-used term which caused us all to sit up a bit in interest. (This was a Mensa group, please recall.) After some discussion, we ultimately decided against it, since we were in a basement and defenestrating Trickster Lawrie would have entailed hefting him up and shoving him out a small 2×3-foot opening high up in the wall, which simply seemed like too much effort, even for our lively group.
But it did leave certain lingering questions. Namely, necessity being the mother of invention and all, what was going on in and around the year 1620 to make someone sit up and say, “Forsooth, I must needs coin a word to describe the pushing-out of a body, live or dead, from a window”?
For not only is the term is puzzlingly specific (not to mention amusing, visually), but it describes an action that by almost any standards would be considered bizarre. Certainly throwing someone out the door was, and is today, not uncommon – drunks, cheating spouses and the neighbour who just won’t bugger off home in the wee hours after a party are just some examples of persons who may get thrown, metaphorically or not, out a door.
And certainly anyone even peripherally familiar with the history of so-called sanitation in the western world will be familiar with the (mercifully) long-gone practice of emptying chamber pots out of upper-storey windows into the streets, and onto the heads of unlucky passers-by.
In fact, this foul practice sparked a whole new behaviour in turn, that of a gentleman always walking on the “outside” when accompanying a lady, so that she was protected by the overhang of a house and any falling excrement would splatter exclusively onto the hapless gentleman. (Which begs the question of why anyone in that era would ever go for a walk in a populated area, ever, for any reason, if a downpour of poo was to be more or less expected. Imagine the weather forecasts — “Cloudy with a chance of feces…”)
On a related note, years ago I visited Prince Edward Island and was accompanied for one glorious day by a generous old Islander named Edgar, who not only took me to see all manner of interesting things, including a fish cannery and a bottomless swamp, but insisted on walking on the “outside” of every sidewalk we were on. When I asked him why, he told me the chamber pot story, although indoor plumbing has been standard on PEI for decades now, as far as I know; funny how traditions persist.
Anyway, I digress yet again.
So, to recap: there’s the understandable matter of throwing people out of doors, and the understandable yet vile matter of throwing bodily effluvia out of upper-storey windows. And of course the long-standing tradition of the “second-storey man,” or burglar, who comes in through an upper window but is unlikely to be thrown out of it unless the homeowners surprise him during his visit.
Which leaves us, dear reader, right back where we started: where did this word come from, and why? I have a sinking feeling that, along with revisiting Stieg Larsson‘s first two novels to perform a “coffee count,” I am going to be combing through my history books for a first mention of “defenestration.” (Unless of course my friend Ann, whose store of knowledge about these types of things is absolutely encyclopaedic, speeds to my rescue, in which case I shall publish her response in full and be even further in her debt.)
I leave it to you, gentle readers, even as my eye wanders towards the bookshelves….
Yours in puzzlement,