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.