There’s a Word for That:Throwing a Person Out of a Window
by Ryan Jardine
Angry Mob: "Who threw the stone out yonder window?"
Town Council: "What stone out what window? We see no window."
Angry Mob: "We will now give you a closer look."
Word of the throwing of city council members out the window fell like brimstone from the sky. Across every city, village, and hamlet in cascading conversations, people spoke about this throwing of town councilors out of yonder lofty windows. The talk occupied so much of the national dialogue that ancient wordsmiths set out to find a brief and compact way to describe the throwing of people from windows. The perfect word was not discovered for nearly 200 years.
These two centuries passed, and in 1618 the world sat staring the Thirty Years’ War right in the face. Again in Bohemia, at Prague Castle, the Roman Catholic rulers and the Bohemian insurgency dove headlong into a showdown. In defense of the constitution, the Bohemians interrupted a meeting of the state officials. After some witty banter and political posturing, the insurgents had enough talk. It was time for action.
They proceeded to throw three officials out the third-floor window. Unlike the officials of 1419, these officials survived. There are, however, two accounts that explain the reason for their survival. Either (1) they splashed into a heap of manure or (2) angels of mercy softened their fall. As with so many things, it depends on who you ask.
Once again, the word of this revolutionary act swept across the Bohemian countryside. This time, the people insisted on identifying a catchy name to describe this method of civil disobedience. And they did so with the word defenestration.
Thus, to distinguish the two Bohemian defenestrations, the 1419 defenestration became known as the "First Defenestration of Prague," and in an exceedingly clever turn-of-a-phrase, the 1618 defenestration became known as the "Second Defenestration of Prague." Some bright and inventive scholars believe that after the Second Defenestration of Prague a city ordinance was considered that required all city council rooms to be built without windows.
While defenestration is the act of throwing a person out of a window, it can also apply to objects. Its origins fall from the Latin de for out and fenestra, meaning window. Those who took four years of French in high school also will recognize the French word la fenêtre, which means window and also is derived from Latin.
Although defenestration is the noun describing the act of throwing a person out of the window, one also can use the word as a verb: defenestrate. For example, "Due to the filipendulous temperament of a 1419 group of rebel peasants, they defenestrated the opposition."
For those who rise and fall on a clever pun, you will be glad to know defenestrated can be used in several universally funny ways as well, such as using it to describe something that is windowless. The author Cyril Connolly described Prague as "seem[ingly] a good place, gloomy and defenestrated," perhaps referencing windowless council chambers. Another witty group used defenestrated to describe the removal of the Windows operating system from a computer, because when a computer has Windows removed, it also has been defenestrated.
The uses of defenestration, both witty and meaningful, will impact each of our lives. For instance, before reading this column we may have sat placidly by when someone threatened us with imminent defenestration. We now know at such times, as with an impending hurricane, to move away from the windows. Knowing this word and its origin, however, will certainly have a far more significant impact than mere self-preservation. This new knowledge delivers the power of understanding.
As a young child, I remember my mother reading passages from Edvardus Philippus’s classic 1671 "New World of Words Dictionary." From Abracadabra to Zyzzyva, nothing fell into my consciousness more than this observation: "Let a subject be never so grave, never so useful, carry in it never so clear and perfect a demonstration; yet if it be not pertinently worded, and urged with a certain power and efficacy to the understanding, but in a forced, tumultuous, or disjointed phrase, it will either not be understood, or so slightly, and with such indifference regarding, that it will come short of working that effect which it promised to itself." Lesson learned and applied, Mr. Philippus. D
Ryan Jardine is a public finance attorney with Kutak Rock LLP in Denver. There’s a Word for That is an occasional column defenestrating word origins from the windows of history.