Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 3, 2020

Etymology in the News: Curfew

As I write, a significant number of American cities or portions thereof have curfews in place during certain hours, typically evening until early morning.

This post is not about the reasons for the curfews. Enough is being written on that account. It’s about the word, “curfew.” Where do we get it?

Give it some thought. Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, a Romance language, a Germanic language, borrowed from India or some other part of the world by English speakers?

Notable Uses

In addition to using curfew as an ordinance or regulation controlling the movement of people to this day, curfew appears in a couple of well-known English poems, in which an earlier sense of curfew is present.

One, “Curfew Must not Ring To-night,” was a dramatic and memorably romantic poem written in 1867, set in the 17th century by its 16 year-old author, Rose Hartwick Thorpe. The fanciful story — one of a number of retellings — concerns  a young woman who risks her life to stop the parish church bell from ringing the evening curfew. Her lover has been — unjustly, of course — sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolls. You can read it at this link.

The most famous example of the evening curfew bell I can think of is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” 1751.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea.

Read the full text at this link.

A Familiar Route

We have the word in English as far back as Middle English, about 1285, spelled variously before the language began to be regularized, coeverfeu, corfu, curfeu.

Initially, the notion of an evening curfew was as a prevention against disaster due to fires left unattended at night, which could quickly consume an entire village of wooden houses with thatched roofs. At curfew, you covered the fire.

Modern English includes thousands of words we acquired following the Norman Conquest and the years after that, when the official court language was French. Curfeu arrived during that time, stemming from an Old French word, cuevrefeu. It meant both “curfew,” and “fire cover.”

A bell would sound to signal curfew, indicating it was time to cover the fire.

Modern French retains the word as couvre-feu, with exactly the same meanings. Those of you will recognize a version of the infinitive couvrir, to cover, and feu is still “fire.”

By routes too labyrinthine for my patience today, the French word originated with Latin words for “cover” and “fire,” the latter derived from Latin focus, “hearth.”

Keep your fires covered. Be safe.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Etymology courtesy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971; Cassell’s French Dictionary, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1982.


Responses

  1. So you decided not to focus on focus. Maybe you’ll cover it another time if you get fired up enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good one. End of a long day in which I asked myself, “Where do we get curfew?” barely in time to write the minimum. You’re right, it bears consideration, if I have any light to shed.

      Like

      • By the way, another English word in which the French verb for ‘cover’ is hiding is kerchief.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Really? I’m off to the dictionary. Merci.

        Like


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