Jul 042015

Knowingly or otherwise, defenestration is something that most of us are tempted to do with our computers every now and then

It may be no coincidence that, during a week of soaring heat and shortened tempers, two different computer support clients sent me emails this week saying that they would like to throw their computers out of the window. Had they carried out their threats, they would have been performing an act that goes by the rather grand name of “defenestration”.

Defenestration - Banksy

This Banksy cartoon used to grace a wall in a car park near Old Street station. I took this picture in 2005.

It’s one of my favourite words – even if it does conjure up a rather desperate act. Whenever I suggest to clients that, if nothing else works, we can always defenestrate their computer, they usually ask what I mean by that and I tell them that it just means chucking it out of the window. The word comes from Latin – “de fenestra” means “out of the window” or “from the window”. That’s the meaning of the term when applied to famous examples in history and it’s also how I mean it when I am suggesting to clients that they might like to “recalibrate their expectations of their computer’s ongoing functionality”. It’s quite surprising just how often people resort to this mental image when their frustration with their computer hits a peak. If I’m using the term semi-seriously, it’s probably because I’m starting to think that it might cost more to sort out a computer than to replace it. To put that another way – “…mend it with a new one”. As hardware gets cheaper and cheaper, this position is, of course, reached sooner and sooner.

Prague Castle

“Hradcany” (Prague Castle). Scene of not one, but two, famous defenestrations

Some sources say that the first use of the term described an incident in Prague in 1618 in which two agents of the crown were found guilty of violating people’s right to religious freedom. They were sentenced to being thrown out of a window of Prague Castle. Although Prague Castle is a large and imposing building, the pair were not seriously hurt. This incident became known as the “Defenestration of Prague” and was an early incident in the Thirty Years War.

However, there is also evidence that a previous incident of defenestration had taken place – also in Prague Castle – as far back as 1419.

Whatever the true origin, the word has come to mean the act of throwing anyone or anything out of a window.

Rather splendidly, the word has also been purloined to mean something completely different, but also very relevant to computers. We all know that Microsoft’s operating system is called “Windows”. We also know that there are a lot of people out there who use computers but who strongly dislike both Microsoft and Windows. So, defenestration has now come to acquire the different meaning of “removing Windows from a computer”. In other words, stop using the Windows operating system and replace it with something else, such as Linux.

So, in one sense it can mean throwing a computer from a window, and in another sense it can mean throwing Windows from a computer. How neat is that!

Of course, the usual advice applies – never defenestrate a computer without taking backups first!

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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