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Terms set in ancient stone - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Sep 07, 2022

Now replaced by the severe language of the 20th century, Johnny Grimond laments the loss of Greek in the terminology of architecture

Almost every human activity has its jargon, and much of it is dreadful.

My pursuit, journalism, is not a profession – no qualifications are necessary – but it has a few words and expressions not widely used outside the world of hackery. Most are dull.

Terms such as ‘filing copy’, ‘overmatter’ (the part of an article too long for the allocated space), ‘undermatter’ (the opposite), ‘subs’ (sub-editors) and ‘stringers’ (correspondents) do little to lift the spirits. ‘Deadline’ (originally a line round a military prison, beyond which a prisoner could be shot) is slightly more interesting and ‘the stone’, a table on which pages of type were ‘imposed’ by ‘compositors’, brings to mind an inky smear of hot-metal history.

But many of these words are forgotten. I do not complain at their passing, even though they have been overtaken by the techno-bilge of computer nerds, digitisers, podcasters and social mediacrats. They held no magic for me.

How agreeable, I sometimes think, work must be for those whose professions are blessed with a rich and satisfying vocabulary. I like, in particular, the language of architecture, much of which derives from the ancient temples of Greece and Rome, when ‘columns’ adorned buildings, not monthly magazines.

Whether Doric, Ionic, Corinthian or Tuscan, those columns somehow convey the elegance and orderliness of the Classical world. They have inspired many buildings over the centuries, from the Parthenon in Athens and the Tholos of Delphi to numberless Romanesque churches, Palladian villas, the Banqueting House in London and the great civic buildings of Washington, DC.

Along with those buildings have come many words still used today.

A random selection of architectural terms with Greek or Roman origins might include ‘plinth’, ‘gargoyle’, ‘finial’, ‘rotunda’, ‘apse’, ‘balustrade’, ‘cornice’, ‘portico’ or ‘fluting’. These words have a ring to them. They evoke images. I do not ask you to consider calling your son Astragal or Parapet, or your daughter Caryatid or Niche. But Triglyph might suit someone. And wouldn’t Frieze work for a dog?

Of course, words can be pleasing even if they’re not quite right for your offspring. ‘Vomitorium’, I was surprised to learn, is not the small room in which Romans made themselves sick in order to create space for more feasting, but a passage in an amphitheatre, through which the audience would spew in or out. ‘Bargeboard’ (a board along the edge of a gable) is another surprise. This has more to do with rafters than with boaters, and perhaps derives from bargus, the Latin for ‘gallows’.

Plenty of architectural terms have their origins outside the Classical world.

We have Bengal to thank for ‘bungalow’ and other countries for ‘quoin’, ‘mullion’ ‘spandrel’, ‘tracery’, ‘transom’, ‘wainscot’ and – two of my favourites – ‘skew’ and ‘squinch’.

They combine well, too. Would you like your pediment ‘scrolled’ or ‘swan-necked’, your architrave ‘lobed’ or ‘banded’? You can have your frieze ‘pulvinated’ (with cushion-like bulges), or your ‘pinnacle crocketed’ (spire garlanded with carved leaves and buds). You may even have your ‘aedicule vermiculated’ (your fancy window frame given an appearance of worm tracks).

Anything goes, it seems. And often a dash of poetry is thrown in. Bring me my ‘flying buttress’, my ‘hammerbeam’ and my ‘splayed embrasure’. In Scotland, you may have a ‘bartisan’ (battlement), ‘crow steps’ (steps on a gable) or a ‘but and ben’ (two-roomed cottage). Sometimes an oddity makes an appearance – an oeil-de-boeuf, some ‘egg and dart’ moulding or a selection of ‘pepper pots’. All this may not be quite the stuff of burning Sappho or sweet Catullus, but it’s not bad.

Unfortunately, things turned ‘Brutal’ in the middle of the 20th century, when concrete became king and architecture’s new terms – all ‘positive space’, ‘CAD/CAM’ and ‘PVC’ – came without romance.

True, concrete is not a modern word, or material: the Romans roofed the Pantheon with it. But modern Brutalist architects chose their name deliberately and delighted in it, even though some then thought ‘Heroic’ rather better.

Poor fools – poor us.