It’s rare that a nonce word – a word invented for a single situation, also called an occasionalism – takes root in the language and continues to thrive centuries after its original use. But that’s the case with defenestration, which was created from Latin roots meaning “out the window” and which first appeared in English in 1619, a year after the Second Defenestration of Prague, in which “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” (source: OED).
The Second Defenestration of Prague, from a 1618 pamphlet. Source: Coins Weekly.
That’s right: the second defenestration. There have been three famous defenestrations in Prague, a city that is to window-ejecting as Paris is to guillotining. The first took place in 1419; the third, of the liberal Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk, was in 1948. (Masaryk’s death was officially ruled a suicide, but its circumstances remain suspicious. As the bitter joke had it: “Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. He was such a tidy man that when he jumped he shut the window after himself.”)
A Czech poster advertising the 590th anniversary of the first Defenestration of Prague in 1419.
For more than three hundred years, defenestration was reserved for historical discussions and the odd open-window murder. Then, around 1955, defenestration began to be used figuratively, much like dethrone, to describe “the dismissal or removal of a person from a position of power or authority” (OED again). And that – with one striking exception – is how we’ve been seeing it during the last month or so.
Just last week, the departure of Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, who had been accused of sexual harassment by many female colleagues, was summarized by the New York Times this way:l
The abrupt and once-unthinkable defenestration of Mr. O’Reilly on Wednesday leaves Fox News without the top-rated host in cable news — and with a potentially far-reaching shake-up in the channel’s vaunted evening lineup.
Sadly, the age of literal defenestrations is not behind us. As Michael Weiss wrote last month in the Daily Beast, “Two common causes of death for contemporary Russians are heart attacks and falling to one’s end from great heights.” The most recent example of the latter: Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer who’d been scheduled to testify in a racketeering case that was a source of potential embarrassment for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Gorokhov somehow survived the fall from his fourth-floor Moscow apartment, which occurred a day before his scheduled testimony.
On a lighter note, “Defenestration” was the name of a site-specific art installation in San Francisco; it was displayed on the exterior walls of an abandoned hotel that was held vacant by a land speculator for 26 years. On his website, artist Brian Goggin described the project:
This multi-disciplinary sculptural mural involves seemingly animated furniture; tables, chairs, lamps, grandfather clocks, a refrigerator, and couches, their bodies bent like centipedes, fastened to the walls and window-sills, their insect-like legs seeming to grasp the surfaces. Against society’s expectations, these everyday objects flood out of windows like escapees, out onto available ledges, up and down the walls, onto the fire escapes and off the roof. “DEFENESTRATION” was created by Brian Goggin with the help of over 100 volunteers.
When the installation was disassembled in 2014, Goggin offered all the furniture for sale. The building was razed in 2015 to make way for apartments for low-income and developmentally disabled tenants. The new residents began moving in earlier this month.
“Defenestration,” by Brian Goggin, 6th and Howard streets, San Francisco. Photo via SFGate.
Closeup of “Defenestration” via artist Brian Goggin’s website.
Fenestra, the Latin root of defenestration, survives in fenster, the German word for “window.” And yes, in case you were wondering: there is also fenestration. It’s a word used mostly by architects and architecture critics to describe what mere mortals call “windows.” The late New York Times language columnist William Safire wrote in 2002:
The architectural critic of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Patricia (Pittsburgh Phil) Lowry, wrote in October of a new hospital: “the architects subtly varied the fenestration patterns, establishing individual identities for the two pavilions.” In Canada, The Edmonton Journal hailed a Quebec architect for placing a new home's kitchen, bathrooms and utilities all against the north wall: “preventing the fenestration of that wall reduced energy losses.”
This offers the lexicographer a fenestration of opportunity: let us examine the high-rising jargon that architects and designers call, self-mockingly, talkitecture or archispeak.