I looked up scape ‘plant stalk’ (a word my wife and I learned at the Food Bank Farm, where they had garlic scapes), thinking it might have an interesting etymology; it didn’t particularly (it’s from Latin scapus ‘shaft, stalk’), but right below it there was a word with a really great etymology, scapegoat. I’ll quote the OED:

App[arently] invented by Tindale (1530) to express what he believed to be the literal meaning of Heb. ‘azāzel, occurring only in Lev. xvi. 8, 10, 26. (In verse 10 he renders: ‘The goote on which the lotte fell to scape’.) The same interpretation is expressed by the Vulgate caper emissarius (whence the Fr. bouc émissaire), and by Coverdale’s (1535) rendering ‘the fre goate’, but is now regarded as untenable. The word does not appear in the Revised Version of 1884, which has ‘Azazel’ (as a proper name) in the text, and ‘dismissal’ in the margin as an alternative rendering.

Merriam-Webster provides the useful information “as if ʽēz ‘ōzēl goat that departs.”

I must have known that at some point, but my memory has jettisoned enough material over the years that it came as a fresh surprise. (I occasionally “learn” things by reading over my old LH posts, sad to say.)


  1. The word “scapegoat” is translated into Chinese as 替罪羊, literally a goat/sheep that substitutes for one’s sins.
    This is just one of many expressions that have found their way into Chinese to “enrich” the language.

  2. mollymooly says

    One of the most cited malapropisms of Jade Goody, an infamously airheaded British reality show contestant, was “escape goat”. I feel the press ought to have given her a free pass on that one, evincing as it does a modicum of etymological intuition.

  3. Yes, that seems like a strange thing to take someone to task over.

  4. Wikipedia s.v. Azazel also mentions the theory of the Talmud, that it is a wilderness place, rather than a demon. In addition to the reason given there, that it would be problematic for heno-/mono-theists, sort of like “Yahweh and his Asherah,” there is the issue that scapegoating was widespread in the Ancient World, including Canaan (Wikipedia oddly only has Greece in addition to the Bible, but see Frazer), but not with a god at the destination. In this scenario, either Azazel, which is a demon by the time of Enoch, is a demoted gentile god used metonymically in Leviticus, or it started out as the desolate place and then got its own supernatural being. At least that’s my limited understanding.

  5. Are you sure she said “escape goat”? I once worked with a semiliterate salesman who refused to be an “escape boat”, apparently thinking a scapegoat was something like a lifeboat, which is, after all, a means of escape. He also thought “Oblivia” was a country you could be metaphorically “off in” and worried that a customer might “bark at” his proposal, i.e. he didn’t know the difference between “balk” and “bark”. I used to have a couple of other examples of his work — wish I’d written them down.

  6. On an entirely different tack, the ancient Greek word for scapegoat is phármakos (masculine), same stem or root (don’t ask me) as phármakon (neuter), meaning “drug”.

  7. The Septuagint calls it a “apopompaion” (I don’t know how to write Greek letters here). My Liddle-Scott lexicon translates “apopompe” as “a sending away, a getting rid of.” Great word, apopompe. I’ll name a child that.

  8. Michael Farris says

    “who refused to be an “escape boat”
    I am so going to have to use this expression.

  9. Dr. Weevil: Thanks for both pharmakos, which I had forgotten if I ever knew it, and “escape boat,” which made my day.
    Zachary: If you don’t have the Character Map on your computer, you can use this (sample: φαρμακός).

  10. Danish is like Chinese in this case. Though my understanding was that it was the “goat upon which one’s sins were heaped”. But I see that I’m wrong.

  11. BabelMap is Character Map on steroids and TypeGreek handles more of Beta code.
    LXX’s ἀποπομπαῖος is not without similar issues, even if its basic meaning, or at least etymology, is clearer. It might be an adjective modifying the goat (the usual Christian interpretation); or a proper name for a demon or a place. See, for instance, Gesenius, but note that his reference to Bochart should be 651, not 561 (here, if you’ve got EEBO).

  12. See Milgrom (Anchor Bible Leviticus 1-16, p 1021) where he suggests that ‘z’zl is a metathesis of ‘zz’l ‘fierce god’, referring to the Canaanite god Mot. I can’t reproduce all his references here, but the chain of inference is fascinating if (to this layperson) rickety.

  13. John Emerson says

    Derrida’s “The Pharmakon of Plato” is the only thing by Derrida that I ever really admired.
    If what he says is valid it’s quite important, and if not, it’s an extremely amusing and well-done bit of philological free-association.

  14. Hope you bought some scapes and ate ’em. We got some from the Brattleboro farmers market — steamed ’em , threw a little feta on top, great stuff. Not particularly garlicky, actually.

  15. Christophe Strobbe says

    Some Germanic languages emphasize the concept of “sin” instead of “driving out”: zondebok (Dutch; zonde = sin; bok = male goat), Sündenbock (German), syndabock (Swedish), etcetera.
    (The German Wikipedia entry for “Sündenbock” also refers to the related concept of “Prügelknabe”: whipping boy.”)
    @John Emerson
    Scapegoating is a central theme René Girard‘s work:

    [René Girard] found Derrida’s subsequent essay “La pharmacie de Platon” (…) to be particularly significant. Girard would develop the pharmakos or scapegoat aspect of Derrida’s analysis of writing/poison, placing it within history and actual social existence rather than restricting it to language and intertextuality like Derrida.

    Source: René Girard: A Biographical Sketch.
    (I had to remove the English translation in the parentheses in the above quote because it contained a word that triggered a Comment Submission Error: “Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: “, followed by the objectionable word, which is very common in comment spam. So it got scapegoated.)

  16. The pharmakos is the remedy for social ills, as the pharmakon is for bodily ones. Or from another perspective, the pharmakos is the poison in the body politic as the pharmakon is in the body natural.

  17. Lars (the original one) says

    The funny thing is that the scapegoat in Leviticus 16 is the one (of two) that is chosen by lot to be set free (and escape to the wilderness) while the other one is sacrificed for the sins of the children of Israel. The modern sense would lead you to think it was the other way around.

    The Danish syndebuk (and German, Swedish, …) is originally the more general concept of a billy goat that is chosen to be a syndoffer, a sacrifice for the sins of the people, and I don’t think it references Leviticus 16 specifically. The modern sense is the same as scapegoat in English, however, the (innocent) person who gets the blame for some calamity.

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