English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When usage goes out the window*

Q: How did “defenestrate,” a word for throwing someone out the window, become a word for forcing someone out of a job?

A: Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult define “defenestrate” literally as to throw someone out a window and figuratively as to remove someone from a position of authority.

The figurative use of a word for throwing someone out a window isn’t all that surprising. We throw people under the bus and to the wolves, we throw our hats in the ring, throw good money after bad, and throw monkey wrenches into the machinery.

The literal usage, which comes from fenestra, Latin for “window,” first appeared in the early 17th century as a noun, “defenestration,” and an adjective, “defenestrated,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As the OED explains, the usage can be traced to “an incident in which, on the 23rd of May 1618, a group of Protestant Bohemian protestors threw two Catholic imperial officials and their secretary out of a window in Prague Castle, thus helping to precipitate the Thirty Years’ War.”

As it turned out, the two imperial regents, Jaroslav Martinic and Vilém Slavata, as well as their secretary, Philip Fabricius, survived. Martinic later said they fell 30 cubits (45 feet) into a dry moat.

The OED’s earliest citation for “defenestration” was recorded the following year. The noun appears in notes recorded at a meeting in London on Sept. 10, 1619, at which officials discussed a letter about the Prague incident that had been written to King James I of England on June 16, 1618:

“the Bohemians wrote a letter unto his Matie wherein they gave him an accompte [account] … of the defenestration of the Counsailours” (from Letters and Other Documents Illustrating the Relations Between England and Germany, 1868, by Samuel R. Gardiner).

The first OED citation for the adjective “defenestrated” is from a letter written about the incident by Sir Henry Wotton on Nov. 22, 1620, referring to “two of the defenestrated men” (The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, 1907, by L. P. Smith).

However, we’ve found a slightly earlier example in a margin note on a Nov. 18, 1620, letter Wotton wrote on the same subject: “Both defenestrated at Prague, and their messenger, a kind of notary, likewise banished.”

When the verb showed up in the early 20th century in an article about Bohemia, it apparently referred to the incident in Prague and other defenestrations:

“You may still see the windows through which were thrown town councillors and others, ‘defenestrated’ with truly Slav impartiality” (“Bohemia—a New Country for the Artist,” by Val C. Princep, The Magazine of Art, January 1904).

The OED says the verb soon took on a colloquial sense: “to dismiss, discard, or dispose of (a person or thing); esp. to remove (a person) from a position of power or authority.”

The first example for this figurative usage comes from a medical journal and refers to spurning vaccination: “This does not mean the whole theory of vaccines must be defenestrated” (Medicine and Surgery, December 1917).

In the next citation, a group of Italian workers oust their bosses: “They defenestrate the manager, expropriate the owners, and go on producing the goods just the same” (The Freeman, April 14, 1920).

And we found this more recent example about British politics: “The defenestration of Boris Johnson had little to do with morality. At its core, it was about revenge” (National Review, July 13, 2022).

Although the usage is generally figurative these days, it’s still sometimes used literally, as in this headline: “Putin Critic Tycoon Pavel Antov Defenestrated in New Delhi” (Jewish Press, Dec. 27, 2022). Antov died after a suspicious fall from a third-floor window of a luxury hotel.

A final note: One of the dictionaries we consult, Collins, includes this definition of “defenestrate” in computing: “to stop using the Windows operating system.”

* We borrowed the title of this post from a Feb. 11, 2019, headline by our friend Merrill Perlman in her Language Corner column in the Columbia Journalism Review

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