Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

This week is Refugee Week and refugees have naturally been in the news, with UNHCR estimating that there are almost 25.5 million refugees in the world, over half of whom are children. So it seems like a good moment to look at the word refugee and the noun from which it is derived, refuge.

A refuge, from the Latin ‘refugium’ which comes from ‘fugere’ (‘to flee’) and ‘re-‘ meaning ‘back’, is a place of safety from something dangerous or threatening, or the safety that is found there. The latter meaning collocates strongly with verbs such as take, seek and find, and in addition to its literal meaning, the phrase take (or seek or find) refuge in something means to behave in a way that makes an unpleasant situation more bearable, as in the example given in Macmillan Dictionary: To avoid an argument, he sought refuge in silence.

In British English refuge has an additional meaning, a place where women can go with their children to escape domestic violence or abuse. A mountain refuge, meanwhile, is a simple place where people can stay overnight when high up in the mountains.

A refugee is someone who leaves their country as a result of war, persecution or natural disaster. The term entered English via French in the late 17th century when it was used to refer to Huguenots, who were Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France. The -ee suffix usually refers to someone who is affected by an action (such as a trainee) or performs an action (such as an escapee or an attendee). The etymology of refugee is slightly different, since it comes directly from the French ‘réfugié’ meaning (someone who has) ‘gone in search of refuge’, which brings us back to where we started.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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