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A four-forked etymology: curfew

I remember that I promised to answer a few questions, and several of my answers are indeed overdue. But so is the post on the word curfew, which has been smoldering on my back burner for a long time, because I did not dare make its conclusions public. But nothing boils on that burner, and I decided to put off the gleanings and a few lines about curious idioms until next week and share with the world what I know about the origin of curfew.

The poet Thomas Gray. Plaque marking Thomas Gray’s birthplace, CC4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It appears that the etymology of curfew has been solved. In any case, all modern dictionaries say the same. The English word surfaced in texts in the early fourteenth century, but a signal to people to extinguish their fires is much older. Curfews were introduced as a protection against fires and nocturnal disorders in the unlighted streets (so The OED, The Century Dictionary, and other reliable reference works say). The modern sense of curfew does not antedate the nineteenth century. Supposedly, curfew goes back to Old French covrir “to cover” and feu “fire.” The word’s recorded forms are numerous, disconcertingly so.

Many people will remember the opening line of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.” In a different mood, Shakespeare’s Edgar says (King Lear, III/4): “This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet; / He begins at curfew and walks to the first cock.” One can read in dictionaries and encyclopedias that in the remote past the curfew bell was rung at eight or nine o’clock, but Shakespeare’s testimony is confusing. In a different play, we read: “The curfew bell is rung: / ‘Tis three o’clock” (Romeo and Juliet, IV/4). Three o’clock is too early even for “the first cock.” We will presently return to this riddle.

Cock crowing early. Rooster crow by Five Furlongs, CC2.0, Via Flickr.

Two other etymologies of curfew exist—or at least existed. One is fanciful. It refers to a bulky implement for covering fires. Allegedly, its name gave rise to couvrefeu. Such an implement, regardless of its supposed popularity in the past, has nothing to do with our story. But before coming to the point, let us remember that the custom of putting out fires at a certain hour existed in all medieval Europe, and England was no exception. Therefore, the idea that the curfew was a cruel invention of William the Conqueror, who wanted to humiliate and punish his Saxon subjects, cannot be sustained. It is the French origin of the word that is responsible for the guess. One also wonders why the name of such an important regulation turned up in texts so late: since the curfew, most probably, existed before the Norman Conquest (1066), why don’t we know the Old English form of the word?

In The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1895, Lionel Cresswell published a detailed essay on the origin and history of the curfew (pp. 599-617). Cresswell was a serious researcher, and his paper should be treated with the respect it deserves. Below, I will reproduce his conclusions. As far as we can judge, there never was a general, or even a local, practice connected with the ringing of the bell as a specific signal of a curfew. The second syllable of curfew looks like French feu, but among the many variants of this word, listed in the OED (and Cresswell had access to the volume with the letter C), we find Curfur, Curfoyr, Corfour (the latter was recorded in 1320), and so forth. Let us repeat: was –r added under the influence of the English word for fire? More likely, says Cresswell, the etymon of such forms was the French word carrefour “a town square, or junction, formed by the crossing of two roads.”

Town crier. Provincetown Advocate, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It was there that the bell was rung for whatever reason, because the nucleus of a town in ancient times was the crossways. “Enlarged, this junction became the market-place or town square, where the Guildhall, chief Municipal buildings, or church stood, around which the inhabitants built their dwellings, and in which they trafficked in their daily business” (p. 610). Creswell noted that “curfew was frequently applied to a morning as well as an evening bell” (p. 611 and 612; remember Shakespeare!), a fact never discussed in dictionaries. The junction, the crossing was called Carfax, from Old French (and Medieval Latin) carreforcs or directly from Latin quadrifurcus “having four forks.” The OED has a detailed and most instructive entry for Carfax. If such is the origin of curfew, the forms with final r were original, and only folk etymology, that is, a popular conception of the origin of the word, associated the English noun with the French word for fire.

This would have been the end of my message, but for a short sequel. In the journal The Academy for August 20, 1904 (p. 136), a letter on the subject that interests us appeared (note the excellent periodicals mentioned above; they contain tons of precious information). The author was Frederick R. Coles (1854-1927; see the article about him on Wikipedia). Coles must have read Cresswell’s essay or known its contents and wrote the following: “We are now told that this [that is, the current] etymology is a striking instance of mistaken popular etymology which has deceived even scholars. The explanation is that the bell was rung in the evening at the crossroads [not only in the evening!]. Dr. Murray is said to have been persuaded of this etymology, but too late for insertion in his new dictionary. Can any reader point to any textual evidence in support of this new etymology, or explain why even scholars have fallen into this error of popular etymology, if such it be?” To the best of my knowledge, no response followed.

It is not clear what Coles meant by “we are now told.” The essay, which antedated the letter by almost ten years, gives an exhausting survey of the relevant data. What “textual evidence” did he expect? And we should hardly be surprised that “even scholars” (even is repeated twice in the letter) did not guess the truth right away. The entire history of etymology is such: a seemingly inscrutable (or deceptively transparent) word, numerous guesses about its origin, unacceptable solutions (compare the idea of a utensil once called “curfew”), clever conjectures, the disappointing verdict “origin unknown / uncertain / disputed / contested,” an unsafe consensus for want a fully convincing answer, or a true discovery, such that everybody says: “Yes, this is how it was.”

I find Cresswell’s etymology persuasive, but obviously, his or my opinion cannot and should not tip the scale. The question remains open, and we need a discussion. I have written this postscript, intrigued by the statement that James A. H. Murray, the great first editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, “is said [!] to have been persuaded of the truth of this etymology.” What is the source of that statement? Perhaps the etymologists at the OED or those who have for years been working with Murray’s voluminous correspondence, or Peter Gilliver, the author of a book on the making of The Oxford Dictionary, know where and when Murray “was said” to have accepted Cresswell’s reconstruction. I’ll be eagerly awaiting an answer. My search on the Internet yielded no information on this subject. Or have I missed the latest edit of curfew in the OED online? Such things have happened to me in the past.

Feature image by Georgia National Guard via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Berk

    Thank you for your research and this amazing post. Always a pleasure to read, we are lucky to have you.

  2. John

    I found this article hard to digest. Is Liberman really saying that the junction or crossing where roads meet, called a Carfax, is the origin of curfew? If so, how did curfew get its current definition? The road from a four-forked junction to curfew is not explained.

    The current prevalent etymology seems more plausible even if bells were wrung more than once a day.

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