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ARCHITECT'S VIEWPOINT

The first word on everyday items

January 26, 2003|Arrol Gellner | Special to The Times

Ever wonder where ordinary domestic words such as "cupboard," "drawer" and "counter" came from? Some everyday household words have obvious roots, despite their pronunciation being slurred beyond recognition over the centuries.

Other words have more surprising origins. For example, the medieval Latin word computatorium, meaning "computing place," eventually evolved into the French comptouer, which in turn morphed into the English countour, which finally brings us full circle to that modern-day spot where many a personal computer resides: the counter.

If you're still with me, you're an easy mark for the rest of these etymological tidbits:

In the Jura Mountains of eastern France, the front doors of houses traditionally opened into a two-story room whose inward tapering walls extended through the roof. This shaft was topped with a pair of wooden flaps, which served as an escape hatch when the house was snowbound.

In addition to having doors leading to various parts of the house, the room provided a sort of combined fireplace and smokehouse in which hams and sausages could be hung to cure. And that's where we get foyer, French for fireplace.

In medieval times, farmhouse lofts were often reached by an outside ladder that led to a door projecting from the sloping roof. After inside stairs made getting to the loft more convenient, the room began to be used for sleeping, and the door was replaced by a window -- hence, dormer, from the Middle French dormeor, "dormitory."

The medieval farmhouse was also quite intimate with the barnyard, to put it politely, and a gust of wind could bring all manner of straw and debris skating in through an open front door. To prevent this, a plank was fastened across the base of the doorway to keep the stuff out -- literally, a "thresh-hold."

In the 17th century, when ladies were considered too delicate to think about business, politics or anything else of consequence, every large house had a room where male guests could "withdraw" after dinner to smoke cigars and talk about manly subjects. Linguistic laziness eventually shortened "withdrawing room" into just plain "drawing room."

In Victorian times, foul gases were still thought to cause diseases such as malaria (literally, "bad air"). Therefore, when the advent of piped-in water during the 1880s allowed the toilet to be moved indoors, it was placed in its own tiny room to prevent those sewer gases from escaping into the house. That's where we get the quaintly delicate term "water closet."

Occasionally, architecture itself has inspired new English words. In the Middle Ages, long before the advent of wiretaps and unsecured e-mail, nosy citizens would simply peer into a home's windows to get the latest scoop on its occupants. If it happened to be raining, this put them in the drip line of the roof eaves, and that person became known as an "eaves-dropper."

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Arrol Gellner is an architect with 23 years experience in residential and commercial architecture. Distributed by Inman News Features.

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