Words to Love

I was talking recently about a friend who is a bit odd.  I used the phrase sui generis to describe him.  Now, I love this term.  It is usually translated as “One of a kind,” but I think that misses the flavor of the original Latin.  There, I would translate it more as “of his very own tribe.”  Somehow the idea of being of a tribe with only one member captures more of the ego involved.

And speaking of egos, I’ve just been reading about Tudor castles and palaces.  That’s real fodder for a history buff, of course, not to mention a psychiatrist, but a logophile can do pretty well there, too, because the Tudors were as drunk with words as any people we’ve ever known.

There are lots of words about castles that are simply fascinating to encounter, like chemise (not a garment but a protective wall), yett (an iron latticed gate), onager (not a wild ass, but a catapult whose back end kicked up like an ass when it was fired), or machiocolation (a hole in the bottom of an arch or doorway or some such, through which you could drop assorted nastinesses like boiling oil on invaders…also known as a “Murder Hole”).

Another of my favorite castle words, simply because it is so robustly English, is squinch.  If you were standing at the junction of two walls and looked up to find some added structure above you that spanned the angle between the walls, like one of those small, extra towers in a fantasy castle, the stonework spanning the walls would be a squinch.  Squinches were often pierced at the bottom for machiocolations.

Ah, but there were other uses for such holes.  Let me introduce you to the garderobe.  Once upon a time, a garderobe was pretty much what you’d expect from looking at the word: a secure room to store those incredibly expensive medieval robes – a guard robe.  Through one of those migrations that should delight any psychologist, in time the garderobe became a room on an outside wall with a stone shelf having a hole in it that passed down through the wall and out something like a squinch.  When the spirit moved, you sat on the shelf and made your deposit through the hole.   It was a medieval latrine.  And yet another reason not to stand under stonework with a hole in it.

There are many words that seem familiar, but aren’t.  For instance, a batter wasn’t something to be found in a kitchen, but the bottom section of an outside wall angled at roughly 45 degrees.  It was called that because if you dropped a stone down onto it, it would ricochet off, right into the faces of any besiegers.

For another, there is allure.  This word doesn’t refer to one’ undoubted charms, but rather to the walkway on top of a rampart.  Having a different etymology, this word comes from an old French word for “to walk.”  Presumably, one could saunter alluringly on the allure.

The buttery was, logically enough, a part of the royal kitchen.  However, it had nothing to do with butter (all our contemporary bakery and restaurant names notwithstanding).  In fact, it referred to “butts,” as in casks of wine or spirits.  The buttery was the place where the booze was kept.  Apparently anything alcoholic was the favorite target of theft, so only the most trusted of retainers could hold sway there.  That worthy individual was called the “butler.”

The Tudors were wildly idiosyncratic spellers, often spelling the same word or name different ways in the same document.  Nowadays history writers like to make a clear distinction between two words that the Tudors happily treated as one: the donjon was the inner keep or safest part of a castle.  Hence it was where the lord of the manor lived.  However, a dungeon was a nasty hole where the prisoners were kept.  Personally, I think that the fact that the Tudors saw no need to distinguish between the two tells us worlds about their ideas of the proper use of security and power.

And speaking of power and security, if you happen to (God knows why) look up the word crenel, you might get this useful definition:  embrasure in a parapet between merlons.

Yeah, right.

Okay, Imagine a castle with those buck-toothed wall tops.  You hide behind the teeth and shoot arrows through the gaps.  The “teeth” were merlons and the “gaps” were crenels.  What adds interest to me is the fact that the crenels were licensed: If you wanted to add crenellations to your palace or castle, making it much more defensible, you had to get a special license from the king.

So we can imagine fat old Henry VIII, waddling his way around a castle, perhaps strolling along the allure, complacently sure of the security of his buttery, looking out between the (properly licensed by him) crenels, down down past the batters and the chemise to the lawn where they tested the onagers.  Perhaps he would turn back through the yett towards the donjon, down below which his enemies were immured in the dungeon.  He might have been dimly aware of the machiocolations he passed under, but we may be sure he was very careful about standing too long under any squinches.  Somebody in one of the garderobes might be unknowingly about to commit lese majesty all over him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *