Origin and usage
The noun asylum came into English from Latin, and ultimately from a Greek word meaning ‘refuge’. It has been in use since the 15th century.
Refugee Week, which culminates on Saturday with World Refugee Day, presents an opportunity to look at the word asylum (previous posts have considered refugee and refuge.) An asylum was originally a place where people fleeing from punishment could seek sanctuary and from which it would be sacrilege to remove them. In the 18th century asylum came to be used to refer to an institution for people suffering from mental illness, a use that is now considered old-fashioned. The phrase ‘the lunatics have taken over the asylum‘, meaning that the people running things are crazy and irrational, comes from this meaning. Like many words and expressions referring to mental illness, this expression has the potential to cause offence and should be used with caution. The primary meaning of asylum today is the one given above. The related compound noun asylum seeker refers to someone who seeks safety abroad from danger or persecution in their own country and so is narrower than the term refugee.
“It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.”
(Dina Nayeri, quoted on globalgiving.org)
“no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”
(Warsan Shire, Home)
exile, refuge, refugee, safe haven