Taking refuge in etymology

The last post dealt with a few descendants of the Latin verb fugere ‘to flee’ and the noun fuga ‘the act of fleeing,’ so let’s continue. ‘A person who flees’ is a fugitivo/fugitive. Another offshoot is refugio/refuge, which is etymologically ‘[a place] to flee back [to].’ English has a doublet in Latin refugium, which is a biological term for (in the definition of the Oxford Dictionaries) ‘An area in which a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions, especially glaciation.’

There are other “fleeful” scientific relatives. A centrifugio/centrifuge is ‘a machine that spins and causes a substance placed within it to literally ‘flee the center.’ A febrifugio/febrifuge is ‘a medicine that causes a fever to flee,’ so to speak; a vermifugio/vermifuge does likewise for parasitic worms in the intestines. A calcifuga/calcifuge is ‘a plant that doesn’t grow well in calcium-rich soil.’

English calls ‘a person who flees in search of a refuge’ a refugee, while Spanish took the equivalent prófugo from a different compound of Latin fugere. With yet another prefix—Latin subter, whose literal meaning was ‘beneath’ and whose extended sense was ‘secretly’—we have subterfugio/subterfuge. The 1913 Webster’s defined the word as: ‘That to which one resorts for escape or concealment; an artifice employed to escape censure or the force of an argument, or to justify opinions or conduct; a shift; an evasion.’ Politician, thy name is Subterfuge.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Apr 05, 2015 @ 22:53:54

    ‘Subterfuge’ means the same in Spanish: “Su subterfugio era fumar marijuana antes de ir a la escuela.” (Smoking dope was his subterfuge before going to school)


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 06, 2015 @ 03:19:28

      The student in your example might use a subterfuge in order to get away with smoking dope, but in English the smoking itself wouldn’t be a subterfuge. Using a relative of that word, we might say in English that the student found a refuge in marijuana.


  2. Maria F.
    Apr 06, 2015 @ 07:34:31

    If it’s still a subterfuge, how would you word it then? What if you really want to use the word then, how would you word it?: “The student used an illegal drug as a subterfuge to impress his teachers as smarter.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 06, 2015 @ 08:17:51

      I’d go in the opposite direction: the student told his teacher he had to go outside to check up on his biology experiment, but that was a subterfuge so he could hide in the woods and smoke marijuana.


      • Maria F.
        Apr 06, 2015 @ 12:39:56

        You use it as an excuse or pretext, we use “subterfuge” a little bit more liberally, as a lie for example.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Apr 06, 2015 @ 15:19:16

          In English a subterfuge can be a lie. Wordsmyth, for example, defines the word as ‘a stratagem or artifice used to hide, avoid, or deceive,’ and gives this example:
          “Pretending to be ill was a subterfuge; she simply wished to avoid taking an exam she wasn’t prepared for.” Notice that the woman’s claim to be ill was a lie.


  3. Maria F.
    Apr 06, 2015 @ 12:53:21

    We could say, “El hace eso como un subterfugio”, whereas in English that doesn’t work, I see.


  4. Maria F.
    Apr 06, 2015 @ 13:05:32

    I…..hope, you didn’t have students …such as the ones I described…


  5. kathryningrid
    Apr 06, 2015 @ 20:08:15

    I would happily put a whole slew of politicians in a centrifuge for a good spin and see what could be done about them…. 😀


  6. shoreacres
    Apr 10, 2015 @ 19:30:51

    There’s a bit of irony when it comes to the Texas Refugio. According to the Handbook of Texas Online:

    “In 1795 the Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission was moved to the site. The Refugio Mission, the last Spanish mission to be secularized after the area became part of Mexico, operated continuously until February 1830…

    “…In 1831 James Power and James Hewetson acquired the rights to the old mission building and the town that surrounded it, and that same year the villa of Refugio was officially established. The villa became the center of the Refugio Municipality in 1834. On March 14, 1836, during the Texas Revolution, the battle of Refugio was fought at the town; most of the inhabitants subsequently fled to Victoria, Goliad, and other areas to avoid retribution.”

    It seems Refugio wasn’t much of a refuge, at least for a time.

    Your words also bring to mind the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, and their song, “Living Like a Refugee. There’s a short trailer for the film about them here. They’re going to be at the Scoot Inn there in Austin on May 6: as fine a place to take refuge as you could want.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 10, 2015 @ 20:37:17

      It’s good of you to point out the irony conveyed by the name Refugio in 1836. (I wish the current residents would take refuge in the proper pronunciation of the word.) I’m afraid I haven’t heard of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, nor have I ever been to the cleverly named Scoot Inn in downtown Austin. Someone might think I’ve taken refuge in my computer room and have led too sheltered a life, but then I could mention how often I Scoot Out to take pictures of nature, which has indeed been a refuge.


  7. Mélanie
    Apr 12, 2015 @ 10:30:38

    as a language teacher, I’ve always loved etymology… 🙂 glad I’ve come across your awesome blog… gracias y hasta luego! Mélanita 🙂


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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