Q: In The Dark Defile, Diana Preston’s 2012 book about the First Anglo-Afghan War, the reputation of the British army is defiled in the defiles of Afghanistan. What can you tell us about this interesting word?
A: As you point out, the title of that book about a 19th-century British military disaster can be read two ways, thanks to two unrelated words spelled “defile.”
John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, notes that the verb “defile” (to make dirty) and the noun “defile” (a narrow pass) are distinct words in English.
The verb, originally “defoul” in Middle English, comes from defouler, Old French for to trample down or injure. The ultimate source, Ayto says, is fullō, Latin for someone who cleans and treats cloth by stamping on it.
When the verb first appeared in English, it meant to trample underfoot. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to bones “defoulede” (from the South-English Legendary, circa 1290, a chronicle of the lives of church figures).
The spelling and meaning of the verb evolved over the next century and a half, influenced by two native words, “befoul” and the synonymous (and now obsolete) “befile.” In Old English, fúlian and fýlan meant to be foul or become foul.
In the 1400s, according to the OED, the verb “defyle” could mean to bruise, dirty, corrupt, pollute, deflower, debauch, profane, and so on.
Here’s a Middle English “deflower” example from the Ludus Coventriae, a cycle of medieval mystery plays believed written in the mid-1400s: “She wold not be defylyde / With spot or wem [stain] of man.”
And this “profane” example is from a collection of Middle English political, religious, and love poetry that the OED dates at around 1450:
“With outen grace I am bot beste, & warre pan beste defyled with syne” (“Without grace, I am but a beast, and worse than a beast, defiled by sin”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.
The verb “defile” isn’t used much today to mean “deflower,” but standard dictionaries still include such senses as “sully,” “debase,” “desecrate,” “profane,” “corrupt,” and “dishonor.”
As for the noun “defile,” it had both military and general meanings when it appeared in English in the late 17th century.
Militarily, it referred to a narrow passage through which troops had to march in a single file or a narrow column. In general use, it meant a narrow pass between mountains.
The earliest military example in the OED is from a 1685 entry in the London Gazette, a journal of record for the British government: “They repassed the Defilés on the side of the Moras.”
The dictionary’s first general citation is from a 1686 entry in the London Gazette: “A Valley, to which there was no passage but by a very narrow Defile.”
English borrowed the term from French, where défilé was the past participle of the verb défiler (to march in a line or in files). At first the final syllable was often pronounced and written as “é” or “ee” in English, according to Oxford, but it eventually became a mute “e.”
The noun “defile” now means a narrow pass or gorge, often between mountains. This example from Oxford Dictionaries online describes a footpath through a pass in Scotland:
“From here a footpath runs north, through a narrow defile between Meall na h-Aodainn Moire and Creag Bhreac past Loch a’Choire and up steep slopes to the summit ridge.”
Finally, we should mention that the title of Diana Preston’s book comes from Arithmetic on the Frontier, an 1866 poem in which Rudyard Kipling depicts the unheroic death of a young subaltern, “shot like a rabbit,” on a “canter down a dark defile.”
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