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My word of the year: hostages

I have never been able to guess the so-called word of the year, because the criteria are so vague: neither an especially frequent word nor an especially popular one, we are told, but the one that characterizes the past twelvemonth in a particularly striking way. To increase my puzzlement, every major dictionary has its own favorite, to be named and speedily forgotten. The fateful 2024 has not reached even its middle, but since December is a long way off, I’ll volunteer to offer my own word of the year and say something about its murky origins. The word is hostage. It is not likely to disappear from our memory anytime soon.

Taking hostages in the Middle Ages.
Image by J. Paul Getty Museum via Picryl. Public domain.

The Hebrew word “hostages” can be translated into English as “children of surety,” and in many languages the word for “hostage” means both “security, pledge” and “people captured (held) in pledge.” The Greek for “hostage” (hómēros) will come as a surprise to many. Is this, we wonder, the meaning of Homer’s name? Why was the most famous Greek in history called this? Since nothing is known about Homer, we will avoid guesswork. In any case, the word does not go back to the poet’s name: the opposite is true. Moreover, this noun occurs in neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey. Though its etymology is far from clear, hómēros does not seem to have emerged from any root meaning “pledge” or “security.” May the poet sleep in peace, while those whose only connection with Homer is by way of Homer Simpson enjoy their hero’s deeds. Needless to say, Homer is a fully acceptable name in today’s English-speaking world.

Contrary to Greek hómēros, many other European words for “hostage” make sense even to a non-specialist. Such is Italian statico (a little-known synonym for ostaggio), Russian zalozhnik (stress on the second syllable; zalog “pledge”; that is, “pledge-ling”), and even Latin obses, evidently, from ob-sed-s, though the connection between –ses and sedere “to sit” was probably no longer felt by Latin speakers (English obsess is not too far off!). Wherever we look, hostage means “pledge, security” and only then, by extension, “a person held as security.” In Ancient Greece and Rome, hostages were often handed over for the carrying out of an agreement and not as captives, and in medieval Europe, hostages were usually given, not taken.

Rollo, the husband of Gisela.
Image by Pradigue via Wikimedia Commons. CC1.0

Among the European words for “hostage,” the ones from Germanic are particularly obscure. In Old English, we find gīs(e)l ~ gȳsel (read ī as Modern English ee and ȳ as long German ü). The other Germanic languages had close cognates of gīsl but unlike Modern English, have retained them. Such are, for example, German Geisel and Dutch gijzel. Gisela, the wife of the Francian Viking king Rollo (from Hrólfr?), spoke a dialect of Romance but had a Germanic name that must have meant “pledge” (medieval marriages were certainly not made in heaven). To this day, we meet not only Homers but also Giselas. In Scandinavia, many men were called Gísli. The Saga of Gisli (Gísla saga) is one of the most memorable and intriguing tales that have come down to us from the Middle Ages.

Old Norse gísl is an obvious cognate of the words cited above. It continued into all the Modern Scandinavian languages, but strangely, some reconstructed protoform like geisla does not resemble any other Germanic word. Yet it seems to have strong ties with Celtic. Irish giall ~ geill “deposit, pledge” (from Old Irish gíall) looks similar to gīsel, and most language historians treat the Germanic word as a borrowing from Celtic. They reconstruct some ancient root like gheis- ~ ghis-, followed by a suffix.

Why this root meant “pledge” remains unknown: no light on it falls from Sanskrit, Greek, or Latin. The verb for “give” sounds a bit similar, but the similarity must probably have been due to chance. By contrast, the fact of borrowing need not surprise us. The ancient speakers of Celtic and Germanic lived in close proximity from time immemorial, and in some respects, the culture of the Celts was superior to that of their neighbors. Quite a few terms of industry and societal organization reached the ancestors of the Scandinavians, Germans, and Anglo-Saxons from the Celts. Hostage “pledge, security; a person taken as security” was, quite obviously, a legal term, part of the vocabulary of societal organization.

The word for “hostage” does occur in the Old Testament and has a familiar ring. In the Revised Version, we read: “And he [Jehoash, king of Israel] took all the gold and silver and all the vessels that were found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasures of the king’s house, and hostages, and returned to Samaria” (II. Kings, XIV:14; almost the same in II. Chronicles, XXV: 24). Unfortunately, only part of the New Testament from the fourth-century Gothic text of the Bible has come down to us, and we do not know the Gothic cognate of Old Norse gísl. Yet perhaps an almost contemporaneous Germanic word occurs on a runestone, dated approximately to the year 400, though the meaning of the noun –gislas on that stone is debatable. In any case, the Gothic word must have been close to those we know from Old English, German, and Icelandic, because the second part (-gīs) in the Gothic name Andagis meant the same as Gís– in Gísli. From Homer to Gísli people were called “hostage.”

A scene from Gisla saga.
Image from Gisli the Outlaw, by George W. Dasent via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The word continued its travels. Though seemingly borrowed by the Germanic-speaking world from the Celts, it was picked up by their other neighbors, the Finns, with the predictable sense “pledge.” Such is Finnish kihla “community; engagement to be married” (remember Gisela!), a reliable loan from Germanic. By contrast, English lost gīs(e)l. In the thirteenth century, it was supplanted by French (h)ostage (the Modern French form is otage). Hostage looks deceptively simple. Is it not host– plus the suffix –age? Perhaps, though at first glance, such a sum makes little sense. According to a reconstruction offered long ago and repeated dogmatically in many modern dictionaries, the word’s original base was obsidatus (from the still earlier obsidaticus) “condition of being made a hostage,” with h- added under the influence of hostis “enemy” (compare English hostile). In obsidatus, we recognize Latin obses (the genitive: obsedis) “hostage,” from ob “in front of” and sedēre “to sit.” 

Though, as noted, this reconstruction can be found in many dictionaries, Old French (h)ostage meant “dwelling,” a sense hardly expected from “hostage.” French hôte “host; guest” looks more compatible with the idea of an unwilling guest. In Latin, hostis “stranger, enemy” and hospes “enemy” sounded similar. This is not surprising. “Guest,” “stranger,” and “enemy” form a knot, which is hard to disentangle. The English word guest is certainly related to hostis, and think of the pair host and hostile! Therefore, some language historians gave up the sensible but bulky obsidaticus and derived hostage from host. Neither etymology looks fully convincing, but the simpler one may be more acceptable. Such then is the shortest history of the European words for “hostage.” Hostage, it will be remembered, is my word of the year. Years are long, and weeks are short. In a few days, I’ll be out of town, at a medieval conference (speaking predictably about etymology). Therefore, you will hear from me only on May 22. Kindly fill the interim with questions and comments.

Feature image by Couleur via Pixabay, public domain.

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