A refuge is a place people run to when they require or desire protection or sanctuary. It is one of those English words whose meaning is so ingrained that the word ceases to be a word at all and becomes only the meaning. The word has dissolved and only the idea remains and the idea, or definition, of refuge is universal.
Think about it this way. If I said the word “car” to you, you would probably think of a vehicle with doors and four wheels, but other than that the likelihood of you and I thinking of the same type of car is very slim. But if I said the word “refuge,” the probability of us both thinking of exactly or nearly the same idea is much higher. Of course, the shape of that idea might be different for each person. You may think of a tower, I of a church, but it was the idea of safety which brought about that image, not the other way round. Refuge means refuge, sanctuary, shelter. Refuge does not mean a tower, fortress, or monastery. Towers, fortresses, and monasteries are places of refuge, but they do not mean refuge in themselves. Whereas the word “car” is less about the idea of a vehicle with four wheels and more about the Porsche 356A/1600 Speedster my brother and I saw the other day.
Refuge arrives at modern English through the Old French word refuge, but for simplicity’s sake we shall dig out the Latin root. In its root of roots, refuge comes from the Latin verb fugere “to flee”—this is where English gets its word fugitive. The Latin verb refugere, with the prefix re-, means “to flee back” or “to shrink back, recoil from.”1 However, the direct ancestor of refuge is the Latin noun refugium which adds the suffix -ium “place for.”2 Refugium means “a place to flee back to.” This is where our modern definition of refuge comes from.
Refuge is therefore not only a place of safety, but a place to flee to out of danger. Do you sense the difference?
1Patrick M. Owens, Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, Pars I, Glossarium, “Refugere”