On Tuesday, security guards captured a man who broke into the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv and tried to take hostages. His attempt provides a chance to point out a curious fact; that “hostage” used to mean something far less violent and far more acceptable.
Hostage comes from the Old French meaning a “person given as security.” This ancient practice was a negotiation tactic used by nations and rival factions for thousands of years. A hostage was often an elite member of society who was handed over to secure a treaty, promise, or obligation.
Ancient Romans were well-known hostage-takers. They often took as hostages sons of princes. The Romans would keep these royal men in Rome in exchange for the loyalty of a conquered nation. The young hostage would also receive a Roman education. It was hoped that if the man returned to his country and assumed a leadership role, he would be influenced by the ideas and beliefs held by Roman civilization.
Securing a treaty by taking hostages is no longer practiced by civilized states. Hostages are now taken by force and used as a bargaining tool for the fulfillment of certain conditions or promises, or exchange of money or goods.
Often hostages are taken when a vehicle, aircraft, or ship is hijacked. The origin of hijack dates to 1923. It is a shortened version of the expression highway jacker, a thief who held up a bootlegger or smuggler in transit.