On the pleasures of Wikipedia

Dean Ericson writes:

After attending a Chopin concert last evening at the Frick Museum in New York City, this morning I read the Wikipedia entry on him. Quite an interesting fellow, and an interesting Wiki entry. So I’m reading along and the article mentions how, in 1863, Chopin’s piano was “defenestrated”—thrown from a window by Russian troops occupying Warsaw. “Defenestration ” is hotlinked, as so many lively tidbits are in Wiki, and who can resist clicking on “defenestration”? Not me. I’ve heard the word but never really knew what it meant. Maybe taking the storm windows off the house in the spring? No, sir, it means to throw someone or something out a window. And the Wiki article has a list of famous defenestrations, including the most famous, the “Defenestrations of Prague” (which has its own Wiki entry) in which “two Imperial governors and their secretary were tossed from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War.” And then one might be tempted to click on the “Thirty Years War,” for who can really remember what that old conflict was about? But before going there, there’s this intriguing morsel from the list of famous defenestrations: “In 1993, Toronto lawyer Garry Hoy fell to his death after attempting to demonstrate the strength of his office tower’s windows.” Oh, my. And you click on the link and find out that Mr. Hoy’s demise was as sensationally and comically horrific as the link teaser promised. Bloody Wiki, once you start down the path you keep getting drawn further into the thickets of history, wound into the web of knowledge, lost in the labyrinth of links.

LA replies:

I don’t think I knew that defenestration means to throw something or someone out a window. It’s a funny word. Such a fancy, Latinate word, for something so brutal. Yet somehow it fits.

Evan H. writes:

Regarding the lawyer who accidentally hurled himself to death while attempting to prove the strength of his windows—perhaps that could be called an auto-da-fénestration. The literal translation of the Portuguese phrase, which we’ve come to associate with burning heretics at the stake, is “act of faith.”

LA replies:


Larry B. writes:

The word, as you say, has Latinate components, but is also a beautiful combination of the Latin and German roots that have come to comprise our English language. Fenster is the German word for window, the object of the word, and the “de-’ and “ation” prefix and suffix supply the motion of the word, as if the German is the rhythm and Latin is the dance in our wonderful ball of an English language.

LA replies:

I guess I thought the root of the word was Latinate because fenêtre is French for window. But perhaps fenêtre comes from Germanic originally.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

On defenestration—it is Latinate generally, but French specifically; it probably entered English through Norman French. In modern French a window is a fenêtre.

LA writes:
Here is the opening part of the Wikipedia article on the Asian-Canadian self-defenestrator Garry Hoy:

Garry Hoy (1955—9 July 1993) was a lawyer for the law firm of Holden Day Wilson in Toronto. He is best known for the circumstances of his death; in an attempt to prove to a group of his partners at the firm that the glass in the Toronto-Dominion Centre was unbreakable, he threw himself through a glass wall on the 24th story and fell to his death after the window frame gave way. He had apparently performed this stunt many times in the past, having previously bounced harmlessly off the glass. The event occurred in a small boardroom adjacent to a boardroom where a reception was being held for new articling students. Mr. Hoy was a noted and respected corporate and securities law specialist in Toronto. He was a professional engineer, having completed his engineering degree before studying law. He was a highly respected philanthropic member of the Toronto Asian community.

In the words of Toronto Police Service Detective Mike Stowell:

“At this Friday night party, Mr. Hoy did it again and bounced off the glass the first time. However, he did it a second time and this time crashed right through the middle of the glass.”

In another interview, the firm’s spokesman mentioned that the glass in fact did not break, but popped out of its frame, leading to Hoy’s fatal plunge.

Hoy’s death contributed to the closing of Holden Day Wilson in 1996, at the time the largest law firm closure in Canada….

For his unusual death, Hoy was recognized with a Darwin Award in 1996.

Expatriot writes:

The word “defenestration” is formed entirely from Latin elements. “Fenestra” is Latin for window and the source of the French fenetre and the German Fenster.

David writes:

The Latin word for window is fenestra. In French words, the circumflex accent usually marks the loss of a Latin “s,” i.e. magister/maitre, nascor/naitre, festa/fete, and many more.

I used to comment on your site as “Agricola” and am still a reader. Thanks for putting your ideas out there.

LA replies:

Welcome back. Agricola was a commenter in the earlier days of VFR.

Christopher B. writes:

Let me add that when I was at school in England (in the 1960s) every schoolboy knew about the Defenestration (not Defenestrations) of Prague (and had many a chuckle about it—inventing our own variations) , and the Thirty Years War was viewed as being a matter of common knowledge. Who could not but be fascinated by the story of someone called, “Elizabeth of Bohemia, the WInter Queen”—and all that came before and followed?

March 31

Ron K. writes:

My little college had an excellent “Western civ” program for its size. Not only did they make sure we knew about the Thirty Years War (the school was Lutheran, after all), but also about the Defenestration of Prague. We then used the word at the lunch table for days afterward, so maybe it was a pedagogical trick.

When I found myself in Prague for a day a couple years later, of course the one place I had to visit in the limited time was Hradany Castle and that darned window. The guards, who were old ladies (this was still the Commie era) saw me examining the windows in one hall, and knew what I was after. One came up to me yelling in Czech and German, “Defenestrace! Fensterschutz! Defenestrace!” She grunted, and made the motions of lifting a heavy body over the sill.

Now that’s the way to make history come alive. The only thing missing was the pile of manure which saved the original victims.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 30, 2011 12:45 PM | Send

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