Architectural historians are fond of jargon. They will flourish a whole alphabet of words, from ‘abacus’ and ‘bartizan’ to ‘xystus’ and ‘zoophorus’, with great vigour. Within their own circle this is, of course, quite all right; all professions are allowed their jargon. But for the average reader (or listener) such technicalities can be very confusing.
Yet even those who know what such words mean, who think and write about architectural history every day, may not know how they came to bear such meaning. The origins of architectural words – their etymology – has not had a great deal of study, but it throws up some fascinating historical insights.
Because much of architecture looks back to Greek and Roman examples, it’s not surprising that much architectural terminology also looks back to classical roots. So, the ‘abacus’, which is a square slab that sits at the top of the capital of a classical column, derives its name, as you might suspect, from a mathematical calculating device – not the frame with beads we may have learned to count on, but a flat, square wooden board on which sand was sprinkled and calculations scrawled with the finger. ‘Abacus’ is a Latin word derived from the Greek, ‘abax’, meaning a slab – which in turn came from the Hebrew word ‘abhaq’, meaning dust.
‘Architrave’, which means the lowest horizonal portion of a classical building above the rows of columns, comes from the Greek ‘arkhos’, meaning chief, or highest-ranking – as in archbishop. That’s straight forward. ‘Archi’ is followed by ‘trave’, which comes from ‘trabs’, which is not Greek but Latin. It means a beam or a tree trunk. So ‘architrave’ is the principal wooden beam, and takes us back to the wooden origins of classical architecture, which were later replicated in stone.
Just below the ‘architrave’ in a classical building we are likely to find the ‘astragal’. This is a small semi-circular piece of moulding near the top of a column. It was originally a band round a wooden column to stop it splitting, but the name comes from the Greek word ‘astragalos’, which is the rounded, knobbly part of the ankle bone – [the ‘os’ part means bone). So the Greeks saw this bulge as looking like their ankles.
Above the ‘astragal’ we may find the ‘echinus’, a cushion-shaped moulding near the top of a column. Its origins have been lost, though it may have originally have been a flat, round stone that helped keep the column stable where it met the architrave just above it. ‘Echinus’ is a Latin word that means a sea urchin; presumably the builders saw the round stone as being like an urchin’s shell.
A word with a wider meaning today is ‘fascia’; in classical architecture it is a narrow, unornamented strip on the group of horizontal mouldings forming the ‘entablature’ ( a word that comes from ‘table’) above a row of columns. These days a fascia is any frontage, especially of a shop. The word ‘fascia’ is a Latin term for either a bandage or a girdle, and is related to the word for binding. It also has links to Fascists – their symbol was a bundle of bound rods, a Roman symbol of authority.
When we talk of a ‘frieze’ – these days usually an ornamented band across a wall, we are using a word from Medieval Latin, ‘frigium’, which in turn comes from ‘Phrygium’, which referred to bands of cloth embroidered with gold made in Phrygia in Anatolia (now part of Turkey).
After all these classical derivations, it’s interesting to find a word that has, apparently, completely different origins. ‘Bartizan’, a small turret, usually crowned with a conical cap, that projects form the top of a tower (think of Rapunzel in her tower) is, unusually, of Scottish derivation. The Scots had a 17th-century word ‘bertisene’ that meant a temporary wooden gallery used during the siege of a castle. The word goes back to Old French and, ultimately, to Medieval Latin. It came back in to use in the early 19th century, when Sir Water Scott used the word – inaccurately – in his novels.
A ‘broach’ spire – as found on Ripon’s Holy Trinity Church – takes its name from a Middle English word that was derived, via the Old French ‘brochie’, from Latin ‘broccus’, which meant projecting, though broach later came to mean to pierce or protrude. Presumably the thinking was that a broach spire seems to pierce the sky – or else that it has pierced the top of the tower in which its stands to rise towards heaven.
When arches – classical or Gothic - are being built they are made of wedge-shaped stones known as ‘voussoirs’. You will probably suspect – rightly – that the word is French. It came into English briefly in the Middle Ages and then disappeared again until the early 18th century. Like so many words, its origins go back to Latin; the late Latin word was ‘volsorium’ which was linked to ‘volvere’, meaning to roll or to turn.
Neither ‘xystus’ nor ‘zoophorus’ are common architectural terms, but they conveniently bring us to the end of our architectural etymological excursion. ‘Xystus’ (perhaps a useful Scrabble word) means a covered walkway inside a building. In ancient Greece it was a long portico in which athletes exercised and held contests. The word ‘xystus’ is Latin, but derives from the Greek ‘xustos’, meaning ‘smooth’ (presumably as the athletes required the surface on which they ran to be free of obstacles); ‘xustos’ in turn, comes from ‘xuein’, to scrape.
And ’zoophorus’? As you may imagine, it has something to do with animals. It literally means ‘animal-bearing’, and it means a frieze (see above) that is carved with bas-relief images of animals. As ‘Wikipedia’ tells us, ‘The word is rarely used in modern English architectural writing.’ But like so many architectural words, is has an interesting derivation. Dust, ankles, trees, sea-urchins, embroidery, siege engines, athletic tracks – architectural etymology has gathered a wide variety of subjects and influences along the way.