Challenging Word of the Week: defenestration


(dee fen ih STRAY shun) n.

Defenestration is the act of throwing someone (yes, someone!) or something out of a window. To defenestrate a person or a thing is to engage in that activity — a strange one indeed, since these words are more commonly applied to situations where what is thrown out of the window is a person, rather than a thing. It is surprising, in view of what must be the infrequency of this type of activity, that there exists a word for it, but then, there exists a word for just about everything. There is a famous incident in history when an act of defenestration of people was committed: the Defenestration of Prague. It seems that, just before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, the two principal Roman Catholic members of the Bohemian National Council were thrown out of a window of the castle at Prague by the Protestant members — one way to settle an argument. They weren’t killed. The castle had a moat in which the defenestrated twain were lucky enough to land, with only minor injuries. Strangely enough, it is once more to Prague that we have to travel to find a more recent (and this time fatal) instance of what might been defenestration. Jan Masaryk (1886-1948, son of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia) was foreign minister of the Czech government-in-exile in London during World War II. He returned to Prague, retaining that post, when that war ended. A short time after the communist coup in 1948, he fell to his death from a window. Despite the official explanation of suicide, the circumstances have never eliminated the possibility of dastardly defenestration. In A Time of Gifts (John Murray, London, 1977), the English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (b. 1915) tells us of the martyrdom of St. Johannes Nepomuk in 1393 by the henchman of King Wenceslas IV. They hurled Johannes into the River Vltava (also known as the Moldau) from a bridge in Prague. Mr. Fermor adds in a footnote: “there are several instances of defenestration in Czech history, and it has continued into modern times [referring, no doubt, to poor Masaryk]. The martyrdom of St. Johannes is the only case of depontification, but it must be part of the same Tarpeian tendency.” Mr. Fermor is referring to the Tarpeian Rock — the Mons Tarpeius — on the Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome, from which criminals and traitors were hurled to their death.

This selection is taken from the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House.

I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it.

9 thoughts on “Challenging Word of the Week: defenestration

  1. I’ve been tempted to defenestrate writers from the NYTimes on occasion.

    This post makes me happy to have been born far, far away from the Czech Republic.

    Thanks for the post. I love that word.

  2. Ben, as the Navy would say, it’s a target rich environment. There’s certainly any number of fusty blow-hards on the scene to prompt us to open a window to let some air in – or throw someone out!

    Also, I love this word as well but usually get a blank look from people when I use it. Now there will be no excuse for not understanding me.

  3. I like this word, too, because the German word for window is “Fenster”. So, defenestrate sounds a lot like “de-Fenster” (and they must share common roots), and hence it is like you “de-Window” someone.

  4. Jeff, the French word is “fenetre”. So it appears that people have a multilateral desire to toss people out of windows. Where’s Howard?

Leave a Reply