Many European languages have a single word derived from the Latin prepositional phrase de fenestra (“out from a window” or “down from a window”) meaning “the act of throwing someone out a window.” Wiktionary lists words with this meaning that are obviously derived from this Latin phrase for Asturian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Rusyn, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish (among European languages), plus for Latin itself (that is, defenestratio is noted as a feminine Latin noun, as opposed to the prepositional phrase de fenestra).

In English, “defenestration” is a somewhat-common example of “a surprisingly-specific word.” The example given of its usage is almost-always the Defenestration of Prague (which apparently should actually be the “Defenestrations of Prague,” since it happened on three separate occasions, but I rarely see that explained in the kinds of articles I’m referring to). Wikipedia has this to say about it:

The origin of the word “defenestrate” (“out of the window”) is believed to come from the episodes in Prague in 1618 when the disgruntled Protestant estates threw two royal governors out of the castle window and wrote an extensive Apologia to this act. However, in the Middle Ages and early modern times, defenestrations took place quite often, and this event carried elements of lynch, ordeal[clarification needed] and murder committed together.

Which is more-or-less what I suspected: this “surprisingly-specific word” was coined specifically for this historical event, rather than simply being an event described by a pre-existing word. However, there’s no source on that, and Wikipedia also notes another, also unsourced, counter-claim that “defenestrations” were a common occurrence in the Middle Ages, which would make it plausible that the word existed in each of these languages (or at least some of them) prior to any particularly-famous singular historical event, say the 1419 or 1618 Defenestration of Prague.

So my question is, is a Defenestration of Prague the origin of this word across all of these languages, or did it already exist when those occurred and was simply used to describe those events? The Latin words de and fenestra are certainly ancient—Wiktionary on fenestra claims it is “Probably of Etruscan origin,” and as for de, we have “Ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *de,” making it even older. So the phrase de fenestra could certainly have been constructed trivially even by ancient Romans—and was probably used, as a phrase, by them on any number of occasions. But I am interested in the migration from prepositional phrase to “first-class” single-word noun or verb (though from what I’ve read, defenestrate and such came later than the nouns).

  • I wouldn't trust the Etruscan theory. Too little is known about the language. There's a potential cognate in Ger Sturz, that is an architectonic term for the horizontal support of a wall above an opening. Incidently, stürzen "to fall, fell" is the idiomatic collocation for aus dem Fenster stürzen and further comes as a metaphor for "to topple, overthrow". Perhaps compare Falle "trap" and "trap-door" for analogy. Consider through, tra-, ter- as compound, although *ster- "stiff" as per wiktionary really only makes sense in view of "support" (cp porta), though cp. to startle. – vectory Apr 28 '20 at 18:02
  • @vectory Fair enough, that’s really interesting! Ultimately it doesn’t really matter in this context—my only goal there was to demonstrate that I’m aware that de fenestra as a prepositional phrase is older, but that it doesn’t answer my question. A bit of “show your work,” a bit of “clarify the specific question.” – KRyan Apr 28 '20 at 18:15
  • It is in fact translated as Prager Fenster-Sturz and some of the victims had German names, so the possibility suggests itself that a significant amount of calquing was involved. Whether that's etymologicly relevant by sheer coincidence is another matter, I agree, but that might be relevant if, as you ask for, it continued a lengthy tradition, in which case defeat, Ger. töten (v. act. trans. ?to dead), finish on the one hand, and on the other hand Dunst(abzug) (cp. sky-eye), extract, and much more might be comparable. A bit of motivating the question. Or is that distracting? – vectory Apr 28 '20 at 18:45
  • @vectory I’m having a little difficulty following you—I know barely any German, do I don’t really understand what you mean about töten vs. Dunst(abzug). It certainly sounds like you might have something there, though, and I am certainly interested in other possibilities. But I wonder if they wouldn’t be better as an answer? – KRyan Apr 28 '20 at 18:57
  • The juxtaposition is: a) *dhew- 1 "to die, pass away", and 2 "to run, flow"; one might assume that "to pass away" could logicly follow from "to flow", as is said for *mer- "to disappear, die" (cf murder), but wanting de fe- and ignoring Grimm's Law for a second, töten can be compare to redulicated *dheh1 "to do put, place" (although, "dead" + verbal suffix is a sufficient mainstream concensus); -w might imply "down,away", *Hew-. "to do" can mean anything, so it's easy but insignificant to connect Dunst; ... – vectory Apr 28 '20 at 19:56

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