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The origin of ostracize has, unfortunately, nothing to do with ostriches.

Does ‘ostracize’ have anything to do with ‘ostriches’?

It’s a nice idea, but the two words are in fact quite separate. Ostrich comes from an Old French word ostruce, dating right back to the twelfth century. The Latin term for the bird was struthiocamelus, meaning a ‘sparrow camel’, a word coined after the first encounters with ostriches, probably because of the animal’s long neck. Eventually struthio stood on its own and was converted from French into the ‘ostrich’ we know today. Ostracize, meanwhile, has a very different history, and a colourful one too.

To ostracize someone is to exclude them from a community. The word comes from the Greek term ostrakon, the literal meaning of which was ‘broken pottery’. In Athens and other ancient Greek cities, a citizen whose power or influence was considered dangerous to the state was sent into exile for five or more years. Any candidate for such banishment was the subject of a democratic vote. Each person eligible to vote would write down the name of the candidate they saw fit for banishment on a fragment of broken pottery or potsherd. The pieces were then counted, and if the votes deemed it popular, the person would be ‘ostracized’.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent
In the book What Made the Crocodile Cry?, Susie Dent draws on her popular television segment on the curiosities of English to tackle fascinating puzzles.

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