Today’s word is more than just your regular day trip or week-long getaway. Today’s word conjures up images of exotic, dangerous, and distant locations, such as the North and South Pole, the heart of the jungle, or the top of Everest. Regardless of whether they were successful or not, the trials, successes, and endurance of those linked with today’s word still manage to capture the public’s attention, names like Byrd, Shackleton, Scott, Hillary, and the mysterious fates of Mallory and Irvine. Without a doubt, great expeditions captivate the mind and the imagination, but what about the word itself?
Our word, expedition, comes directly from the Old French term, expedicion, which can mean ‘a speedy implementation’ or ‘a particular mission’. If these two meanings seem unrelated, there’s a reason why – it is because of the term’s Latin origin. Specifically, our term originated from expeditionem, which was understood as ‘a military campaign’; however, the older root term, expedire, initially meant ‘to prepare or make ready’ in a more general sense.
While we may primarily understand the term as an exploratory voyage taken for the purpose of discovery or research, that’s not quite how the word entered into English. Adopting the strict military usage of the word, the first use in English can be found in the Troy Book, a 1430 poem telling of the history of Troy from its founding to the Trojan War, written by the monk John Lydgate, where a heading reads: “In this expedition towards Colchos.”
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t too long after the first martial mention that the usage from the original root first appeared. In the spirit of ‘preparing and making ready’, our word was slightly adapted to mean ‘the action of helping forward, accomplishing, or speedy execution of an objective’, which can be seen in a section of Thomas Turner and John Parker’s 1859 work, Some Account of Domestic Architecture in England, from Richard II to Henry VIII, which includes a section from reign of Henry VI (1445) where a “W. Clebe” notes: “For puryance & hasty expedition of the necessities aforesaid.”
Over the next century, as the military usage of the word began to become limited, the idea of preparing and making ready was soon condensed into the qualities of speed, promptness, and haste. William Scoones’ 1880 compilation, Four Centuries of English Letters, includes a letter from archbishop/cardinal, statesman, and almoner Thomas Wolsey dated 1529 in which he hopes: “That expedicion be used in my pursuits.”
Though expedition was still about speed, looking specifically at our understanding of the term as an excursion with a specific defined purpose, it should come as no surprise that the term is linked closely with British involvement in the Age of Exploration. A copy of one of Shakespeare’s first plays, Two Gentlemen of Verona, dating from around 1616, mentions: “You shall be imployd, To hasten on his Expedition,” using the term to mean a voyage or excursion made for some definite purpose. It’s interesting to note that 1616 was also the year the Jamestown became the capital of the Colony of Virginia, in the English settlement that would later become the United States.
Marrying the two initial meanings and truly hammering down our concept of the term as a group of people, well-equipped and sent out for a specific purpose (military or otherwise), English historian and bibliographer Narcissus Luttrell, writes in a 1693 entry in his work, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September, 1678 to April 1714, how: “A draught is made out of the several regiments..to go on board the expedition”.
Although it is easy to get caught up in the tales of adventure as you are reading them, it’s also important to remember that nobody thinks they are quite as exciting and sensational while they’re enduring them. That being said, here’s hoping your next trip or vacation doesn’t turn into an expedition.