• curfew •
kêr-fyu • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A time at which everyone is required to clear the streets and be at home or the regulation that institutes such a restriction. 2. A signal that is sounded to mark the beginning of a curfew.
Notes: Today's Good Word hasn't much of a current family since it is a word fallen victim to folk etymology, the conversion of a foreign-sounding word into one that sounds more English. Even though cur and few have nothing to do with a curfew, they are at least English words, whereas couvre and feu (see Word History) are not. M'aidez "help me" suffered the same sort of transformation in becoming English Mayday!
In Play: Tork Buckley suggested today's Good Word when curfews were imposed in the Arabic banlieues (suburbs) of several French cities back in 2005. However, curfews are not limited to cities: "OK, guys, I have to go; we have an 11 o'clock curfew at our house."
Word History: Today's Good Word has a rich family history. It comes from Middle English curfeu, a word borrowed from the Old French phrase cuevre feu "cover the fire", from the verb that today is couvrir "to cover" + feu "fire". A curfew originally was the time when you had to put out your fires, candles, and lamps. French couvrir is the direct descendant of Latin cooperire "to cover up" from co-, an intensive prefix + operire "to cover". The same French verb went into the making of kerchief, originally Old French couvrechief from the words that are today couvrir + chef "head". (Thank the craziness of the English spelling system for the initial K.) You might be surprised at where feu "fire" came from. It was originally Latin focus "hearth, fireplace", a word English borrowed directly from Latin, giving it the meaning of the place where the fire starts when you hold a lens beneath the sun.