91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Keep the home fires burning – unless you're under curfew


Curfews have always been about keeping us safe. What has changed is what we’re being kept safe from.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says the word "curfew" has a long history that goes back to fire.

"The word first comes into English in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman, and the root of it is the word 'cover' and the word 'fire,'" Curzan says. "And for people who know French, 'couvrir' and 'feu' –  and that gives us curfew."

The story is that in medieval Europe, at a fixed hour in the evening, a bell would toll. 


"And that would mean that people should extinguish their fires, the idea being that we shouldn’t have unattended fires at night because people’s houses might burn down," Curzan explains. "So that’s where curfew starts, that evening bell to say you should put out your fires."

Curzan says over time, curfew came to refer to any ringing of the bell, often at night, but could be at another time, and sometimes for a regulation. 

"Escape is another English words with a hidden etymology.

"This also came into English in the 14th century," Curzan says, "and in English, it has always meant to get free from detention. But if you take it all the way back to Latin, it comes from 'ex' and 'cappa' – out of your cloak, to escape from your outer garments." 

That's something to keep in mind in case a flasher crosses your path.

Another of Curzan's favorites is the word "desultory."

"This one, which now means that something is disconnected, or disappointing – like a result, or  you didn’t try hard enough," Curzan says. "Desultory originally meant of or belonging to a vaulter. You can see how a vaulter came to mean someone who skips about or moves irregularly, and that’s how we got to the meaning disconnected.

"And the same root – the 'sult' – we find in insult. If you look back at insult, it means to leap in or leap at, which makes sense, because when you insult someone you're leaping on or at them in some metaphorical sense."

Listen to the full segment above.


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.