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The Independent Online
Asylum

ASYLUM-SEEKERS, according to reports, are to be given a tough time by our politically sensitive Home Secretary, unless they can show that they're not from "white" countries - a confusing adjective, but that's by the way. What interests me is the choice of the word asylum, which is the Greek version of the Latin-derived sanctuary, though their etymologies differ. Both meant a refuge - usually a temple - and if you look in almost any sizeable English dictionary you will find that each is at some point defined by the other. It's just by accident that the words diverged, so that by the 19th century one of them found itself in church and the other among the mentally disturbed.

's career has been the more chequered. Lunatic asylums (or asyla, as they used to be called before that plural went down the road more recently taken by referenda and curricula) were what the word implied - places to protect defenceless people from the cruelty of the world. But then their role reversed itself and they became a way of protecting the world from the lunatics. got a bad name, and had to be erased from the vocabulary of welfare. So successfully was this done that we have nearly forgotten the old unhappy connotation, and the word is more or less back where it began - an interesting rescue operation.

Sanctuary has had a quieter life. And one still tends to think of it as a place, whereas asylum is thought of in terms of a condition, security from oppression, rather than somewhere to be secure in. Only the place of sanctuary has changed. Take your clipboard into the street and ask where sanctuaries are to be found, and I bet most people will say among the wildlife. Only a few will think of that bit beyond the choir stalls.

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