This morning I read a tweet that made me stop and think, “Wait.. what?”
The word that got my attention was ‘bivouacked’. Despite the fact that I am a passionate reader and a scholar and teacher of History, I had no idea what this word meant. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one: plenty of people responded that they had to look the word up.
My trusty Macquarie Dictionary gave me the definition.
Etymonline explains that the use of bivouac in English dates back to 1702, meaning an “encampment of soldiers that stays up on night watch in the open air, dressed and armed.”
It is an image of readiness to defend and protect, which was exactly the context of the tweet. These images of bivouacked soldiers in the Capitol building, Washington DC, are confronting and comforting at the same time. That it is even necessary is heartbreaking, yet in the current political climate, I am thankful they are there.
The word came from French, and before that from the 17th century Swiss/Alsatian word ‘biwacht’ which meant “night guard”.
By 1853, bivouac was also used as a noun to mean an outdoor or open-air camp.
The use of the verb ‘to bivouac’, meaning to post troops in the night dates to 1809, and meaning to camp or sleep out-of-doors without tents dates to 1814. It should be no surprise that the noun became a verb in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, during both of which the practice would have been common.
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