Weekly readers of The Word Guy have probably assumed that I’ve taken an extended break from posting. Well, not quite. The temporary cessation of posts has happened at about the same time as I spent just over a week in the UK on business and visiting my parents. I flew back on Sunday 11th November, which happened to be both Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. The latter is defined by the OED as;
…the day, 11 Nov. 1918, on which the armistice was concluded which brought the war of 1914-18 to an end; also, any anniversary of that day. Combined, since the war of 1939-45, with Remembrance Day.
I would have forgotten if it weren’t for the fact that the airport held a two-minute silence at 11:00 am as I was waiting for the 11:35 am Manchester to Newark flight, my carry-on bag newly stuffed with large blocks of Cadbury chocolate and brand new Times cryptic crossword book – a terrible but addictive time waster that marks the true cruciverbalist.
Just a couple of weeks later, the North Korean government took it upon itself to launch an attack on the tiny South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, a three-square mile plot of land that is home to about 1600 civilians and 1000 troops. After the evacuation of the population to the mainland of South Korea and a whole lot of saber-rattling, various commentators warned of the potential escalation into a full-scale war.
Technically, though, the two Korea’s are still at war and have been since 1950. The current situation is one of armistice, a temporary cessation of hostilities brokered in 1953. Although some would effectively consider this the end of the war, no peace treaty was ever signed and, as we know, North and South Korean “peace” is more a state of permanent tension.
The word first appears in Francis Gouldman’s 1664 A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts where is is defined simply as “a cessation from arms for a time, a short truce,” which is almost identical to how the OED currently defines it.
It derives from the Modern Latin armistitium, itself coming from the Latin arma meaning “arms,” and the suffix –stitium, which means “stopping.” The verb sistere translates as “to stop.” This is also a root for the word “solstice,” which means “stopping (or standing still) of the sun,” and so do “resist” (to cause to stop) and “insist.”
By the 19th century, the word was being used figuratively to describe temporary truces between individuals and not just states. Laetitia Hawkins, an English novelist, wrote a three-volume gossipy work in 1814 called Memoirs, Anecdotes, Facts, and Opinions, in which she talked about the town of Twickenham and its residents, and in it she includes the phrase, “There was an armistice between father and daughter.”
The original British Armistice Day was first mentioned in The Times of London in November 1919;
The Armistice-day service at St. Paul’s Cathedral will be the office of Holy Communion.
This was followed a year later in the same newspaper with the comment;
The first anniversary of Armistice Day was celebrated throughout the Empire yesterday.
From 1919 until 1945, Armistice Day observances were moved to Remembrance Sunday – the first Sunday after 11th November – but since the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, it has become usual to hold ceremonies on both Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.
Meanwhile, the armistice between the two Korea’s seems to be heading toward yet another period of harsh words and even harder bombs. It seems that History is a poor teacher.