Fun Etymology Tuesday – Ostracise

Tuesdays! Isn’t it just a great day? I mean, yes, it’s a long way until the weekend, but there’s a new FunEty!

Let’s take a look at something one should never do: today’s word is “ostracise”!

This word shows up in English in the late 16th century, originally coming from Middle French “ostracisme”. The French word came from either Latin “ostracismus” or directly from Greek “ostrakismos”, which in turn cake from the Greek word “ostrakon”, meaning a tile or potsherd. The PIE-root, *ost-, meant bone, which is also the source of Modern German’s “Estrich”, meaning pavement.

Now to the good stuff: how did a Greek word, referring to a tile or potsherd, come to mean something like excluding someone?

Well, the word itself was actually a name of a particular public practice in Ancient Athens! People would gather around and write the name of a person that they thought was dangerous to the state on a potsherd or a tile. If someone’s name showed up one too many times, that person was banished from Athens for a period of 10 years! A couple of centuries later, we thus find the word “ostracise”, with its current meaning, in English!

However, we could have gotten a word more like “petalise” (or something), if the word had been borrowed from the people of Ancient Syracuse instead as a similar practice, though somewhat more lenient with a banishment of only 5 years, was performed there. Instead of writing on tiles or potsherds, though, the people of Syracuse wrote on olive leaves, and the practice was thus called “petalismos”.

The more you know…

See you next week!

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