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Here’s a word where the etymological authorities appear to be at odds.
From The American Heritage Dictionary: “hostage, noun; a person held by one party in a conflict as security…etymology: Middle English, from Old French, probably from host…”
And from John Ayto’s Word Origins: “despite its similarity, hostage is not related to any of the English words host.”
The Oxford English Dictionary appears to come down on the same side as Ayto while Merriam Webster looks as if it agrees with American Heritage. Everybody agrees though that the roots of the word go back to Latin.
Although I’m sure both American Heritage and Merriam Webster had all kinds of etymological information to back up their opinions, they show less of it than does the OED and John Ayto and so the non-association between hostage and host appears from my vantage point to be the more credible.
Both sources walk us back through French into Latin where the word for hostage was obsidem or obsidatus. The OED explains that when hostage first appeared in Old French, where we got it from, there, as in Latin, it didn’t have an “h” in front of it; it was ostage.
In those very olden days a hostage wasn’t someone taken in a terrorist attack. Instead, powerful men gave their subordinates and often family members in hostage to someone with whom they had made a deal. When the conditions of the deal were fulfilled—say, pay money or move your troops—the hostages were released.
In the mean time the hostages were still important people and had to be treated as befit their station in life. The OED speculates that the “h” in hostage got tacked on because this old style of hostage got associated with a whole family of words that arose out of the Latin hospitem meaning both “host” and “guest” as well as “stranger” and “foreigner.”
That Latin hospitem gave us hospitality, hospital as well as host so that if you were required to show hospitality and be a good host to your ostage you might start calling them a hostage instead.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.