Thrown out the windows, or under the bus?

The Monitor's language columnist reflects on metaphors used for the ejection of public officials.

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One of the things I love about The Economist is that they can publish headlines like this one, from last week: "Crosby defenestrated."

Now I ask you, when was the last time you saw defenestrated in a newspaper headline? Have you ever?

It was just a little item, a single paragraph, so concisely (densely?) written that to make sense of it I had to spend probably more time doing follow-up research than it had taken the writer of the item to put it together. The point of it was that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown seems to be having trouble finding good people to help him look after his country's banking sector. (Does this sound at all familiar?)

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So the latest appointee to fall short has been asked to resign. In other words, he's been defenestrated. That means, literally, "thrown out the window."

Hmm, interesting. In America, we say someone has been "thrown under the bus." A particularly unlovely image, that.

Actually, the two idioms are a little different. In political or corporate parlance, the "bus" expression is used in reference to someone about to be sacrificed or abandoned, undeservedly so. For instance, Hofstra University political scientist David Michael Green wrote last week that Hilda Solis, President Obama's candidate for secretary of Labor is "now probably about to get thrown under the bus for some absurdly minor tax infraction."

The "window" idiom is different. "An unusually swift dismissal or expulsion from office," is one of Merriam-Webster Online's definitions of defenestration.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, defenestration was coined to describe a particular episode in Czech history: "Two Catholic deputies to the Bohemian national assembly and a secretary were tossed out the window (into a moat) of the castle of Hradshin by Protestant radicals." The incident, which marked the start of the Thirty Years' War, is known as the Defenestration of Prague.

The defenestrees survived their ejection from the castle, either because of an angelic intervention (this is the Catholic explanation) or because they landed on a pile of horse byproduct piled up in the empty moat (that is the Protestant version of the story).

Actually I'm surprised that the dictionary pins the word to a precise year – 1620, two years after the incident – and indeed to that specific incident.

Czech history turns out to have a number of instances of people being thrown out of windows at critical moments. There was one in 1419 that ended much less happily for those ejected than the one in 1618 that precipitated the Hussite Wars.

Window came into English around 1225 from an Old Norse word meaning "wind eye." It first referred to an unglazed hole in the roof. The Latin word for a glass window was fenestra, and many European languages used a word derived from that. English had a word fenester, which was used alongside window up until the 16th century.

That's one of the things I love about English.

For everyday use we have a word like window. For special occasions we borrow from Latin and end up with a word that conceals a story within.

A little more poking around has turned up a geek definition of defenestration. In the world of computers, to defenestrate is to stop using the Microsoft Windows operating system. Thus "The Unix Guide to Defenestration." It's not just throwing something out the window, in other words; it's throwing out Windows itself. Whatever your operating system, you have to admit it's clever.

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