Dogs, Butterflies, and Buildings: 5 Architectural Etymologies

The history of architecture furnishes the lover of language with a robust supply of unusual and enlightening etymologies.  The term itself was initially popularized in English in the 1550s from the Greek arkhitekton, meaning “master builder.”  Here you’ll find 5 etymologies from the field of architecture, from the ancient Greeks to modern times.

Cantilever: A popular structure of bridges and towers, a cantilever is a beam anchored at one end and free at the other.  First coined in the early 17th century, it was a compound of cant and lever, the former of which derived from the Latin canus, meaning “dog.”  This “dog” was an architectural term for a piece of timber used to rest beams.

Column: A term with ancient roots, it is derived originally from the Proto-Indo-European word kel, meaning “to project upwards,” which was later Latinized into columen, meaning “top” or “summit.”  From this root, also, we derive the word “hill.”  In the mid-15th century, the word also came to mean a “vertical division of a page” and in the late 18th century was first used to refer to material printed in a newspaper.

Dome: Another term of Greek origin, this word is derived from the word doma or domos, meaning “house.”  In the Middle Ages, variations of this word were used in German and Italian to refer to cathedrals, stemming from the concept of a church being the house of God.

Niche: A word whose metaphorical meaning has become as prevalent as its literal one, it originally referred to a shallow recess in a wall used for storing objects.  The most likely etymology traces the word from the Latin nidus, meaning “nest”, which was incorporated into the Old French verb nichier, meaning “to nestle.”

Pavilion: A term with a beautiful origin, it arrived in the English language in the 13th century from the Old French paveillon, meaning “large tent.”  This word, in turn, stems from the Latin papilio, meaning “butterfly”, used in this context to connote a butterfly’s wings.

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