In an episode of a recent PBS special series, we learn of a filmmaker whose work focuses on “the steps Trump has taken to defenestrate a number of key officials investigating his campaign’s connections to Russia and other evidence of corruption.”
Back in April, The New York Times editorialized about the #MeToo movement by noting that “Some of the most famous men in entertainment, journalism and other fields have been defenestrated, often after years of predatory behavior.”
The vivid image meant to be conjured by “defenestrate” in both those sentences is of the officials and famous men being unceremoniously tossed, at a presumed great height, from a window or, in Yiddish, a fenster.
The word’s root is the Latin fenestra, meaning, yes, you guessed it, “window.” To this day, the word for a window in French is fenêtre. If there’s a Yiddish word for “defenestrate,” I’ve never heard it, but would nominate “aroysgefenstert.” Hey, it’s as good as any.
“Fenester,” in fact, was a common English word for window until well into the 16th century. And the word “defenestrate,” in case you’re really interested or have aspirations to appear on Jeopardy, was coined shortly after May 21, 1618, as the result of an act that touched off the Thirty Years War. (Two Catholic deputies to the Bohemian national assembly and a secretary, you may recall, were tossed that day by Protestant radicals out of a window and into the moat of a castle in Prague.)
In an amusing example of how words adapt to new eras, technological professionals (“nerds” in Yiddish) use “defenestrate” to refer to removing the Windows operating system from a computer. (Well, they find it funny.)
Not to be confused with fenster is finster, which means dark or gloomy. Both words are prominent in a number of evocative Yiddish sayings.
Like the morbid observation that A shtub ohn a fenster is kein gutteh dira nisht–or “a home without a window is not a good abode.” It’s a comment not concerning architecture but rather about the grave.
Then there’s the happier, hopeful declaration that In mein fentster vet oich amol areinkuchen di zun, or “In my window the sun will one day yet poke its face.”
Pivoting back to sadness, a common expression for the feeling of depression on hearing bad news is Es vert mir finster in di oygen”–“It’s becoming dark in my eyes.” Dylan aficionados might be reminded of the bard’s melancholy “The world has gone black before my eyes.”
To describe a foreboding situation, one might refer to it as finster un glitchik, “dark and slippery.” (Glitchik, as we have noted in an earlier column, is the likely source of “glitch.”)
And to capture the importance of appreciating even small things, it’s always worth remembering that Dos licht vert tayerer ven es vert finster–“the candle becomes more cherished when it grows dark.”
What’s more, and to end on a positive note, even if, as the aforementioned Nobel Prize laureate in literature reminds us, it’s getting there, es iz noch nisht finster–it’s not dark yet.