Describing the World around You: Architectural Terms

Dewey-Danforth House

Oh, right.  A left at that Italiante house. (Photo credit: jimmywayne)

Words describing how things look compose probably one of the most voluminous, and least accessible, of vocabularies.  My earlier post on the shapes of leaves is a good example of this, but perhaps architecture words are even better.  This nomenclature must express not only shapes, finishes, and structural techniques, but also the accumulated weight of thousands of years of culture and art—making it pretty opaque to the average reader.

This plain-but-useful illustrated dictionary provides pronunciations, definitions, and photographs explaining a wide range of terms.  This more accessible but less comprehensive article from the magazine Country Life contains some terrific, playful illustrations focusing on British residential architecture.

If you’re like me, you only encounter architectural terms in novels, and usually your eyes just slide right by.  But it’s worth pursuing the full mental picture the author meant to you have . . . and it’s also fun to befuddle your friends with directions like “take a left at the Italianate house on the corner.”


Treasure Untold: Textile Words from India

English: Map of the British Indian Empire from...

English: Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The British Empire didn’t just enrich Mother England—it also enriched the mother tongue.  Today we’ll talk about the astonishing number of words from the Indian subcontinent that, thanks to the economic connections between India and Britain, describe a wide variety of textiles.

Bandana (from the Hindi and Urdu for tie-dyeing)
Calico (from Calicut, a city in Kerala)
Cashmere (from Kashmir, the geopolitically famous border region between India and Pakistan)
Chintz (from the Sanskirt word for spotted)
Dungaree (from the Hindi and Urdu word for a particular coarse kind of cotton; in effect, denim)
Khaki (from the Hindi and Urdu for dust-colored)
Seersucker (from the Hindi and Urdu for milk and sugar)

(Source: Merriam-Webster, online edition)

Note that all of these terms, save one, describe products made from cotton.  This is because India was the British Empire’s main source of cheap cotton fabrics until the southern United States became its largest supplier of raw materials (and British textile manufacturing began mass-mechanized production domestically).  Did you notice how many of the words describe not just cotton, but patterned cotton (bandana, calico, chintz, seersucker)?  It’s an underappreciated fact that clothing of the Georgian era (including, but not limited to, that of such august personages as America’s founding fathers) were not exactly understated, by current tastes.  In fact, men and women both proudly wore or displayed textiles with busy patterns and eye-searingly bright colors.

For further reading, consider picking up Victoria and Albert curator Rosemary Crill’s Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West.

What is an Epigram? For That Matter, What is an Epigraph?

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

What is an epigram?  Samuel Taylor Coleridge posed this question in a short, funny little couplet that’s its own answer.  Merriam Webster’s online edition defines it as “a concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought . . . a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying.”  What, then, you might ask, is an epigraph?  Answer: it’s usually not an epigram.*  And, moreover, this blog posting has already answered that question, Coleridge-style . . . and I’ll bet you didn’t even notice.

An epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of a section that hints at its theme.  Academics love these, and for good reason.  They add color, interest—in a word, they’re punchy!  Here are some guidelines for making those epigraphs look professional.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (online 16th edition), and in something of a miraculous remission of the usual standards of academic writing, you don’t have to fully cite your epigraph.  Instead, after a dash, provide the author’s name and the title of the work (1.36).  No need even for quotation marks, though the block should be indented (either left or right) to set it off from the main text.**  The source should appear on a line below the text of the epigraph (13.34).

And now, friends, you can be correct.  Though correct is a long way from good; for advice on quality, perhaps you should recall what the soul of wit is.

*Nor is it an epitaph, though I imagine you could choose an epigram as an epitaph.
**Nitpickers should note that WordPress blogging software apparently does not believe in indentation.

Cure-all: A Synonym Fiesta!

English: Panacea Helping the Sick. The Verones...

“Panacea Helping the Sick,”1716, from The World is Deceived by False Doctors by Veronese physician J. Gazola. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever noticed how many words there are that mean “cure-all”?  Panacea, nostrum, elixir, even the more obscure catholicon.  Where did all these synonyms come from?  Why were people of the past so stuck on the one medicine that, logically, could never exist?  I decided to check the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary for some help understanding the history of the concept.

Cure-all: In the sense of “universal remedy,” this word wasn’t documented until 1870, but as a type of plant, it debuted in 1793.

Panacea: Used to indicate “a medicine reputed to cure all diseases,” this arose in 1548 (and, interestingly, was personified as the daughter of Ascelapius, whose other daughters included Hygieia).  An earlier version, panace, dates to 1522.

Nostrum: This word has always had a negative connotation of a failed cure.  The OED‘s 1602 example, its oldest, refers to “witless nostrums.”  The figurative use, referring to a misguided cure for social problems, appears first in 1741.

Elixir: An ancient word (first documented use in English: 1386), this once referred both to a substance that could give eternal life and that could turn lead into gold.  It didn’t evolve into the sense of “a sovereign remedy for disease” until 1632.

Catholicon: This term plays on the often-forgotten meaning of “catholic” as “all-embracing.”  It was first used to indicate “a universal remedy or prophylactic” in 1611.

Close attention to the timeline of these words reveals an interesting pattern.  While they all seem as if they should date back to a medieval alchemist in a crumbling tower, scribbling mysterious Latin formulae in an incunabulum, that’s really not the case at all.  Elixir is the only particularly ancient word; two of the others cluster in the 1600s (as does the “sovereign remedy” sense of elixir).  By that time, the Scientific Revolution was gripping gentleman scholars with a mania for empirical fact.  It seems as if scorn for the past might actually have created a new vocabulary—a variety of words to express exactly what was wrong with “old” science, and, by implication, what was right about “new” science.