Saturday, February 10, 2001
R O O T S


Words around
the house

THE humble house is often called palace or mansion, depending upon the level of ostentatiousness. Surprisingly, the origin of both palace and mansion suggests nothing of the sort. Nero, the Roman emperor, is credited with building the first palace. The Palatine hill was at first the main part of ancient Rome, but later, as Rome grew, it became a status symbol to live there. The whole slope came to be studded with houses of wealthy people of Rome. This was so until King Nero wanted to keep the hill for his sole use. To keep him happy, all other houses were destroyed and their residents were given houses elsewhere. Nero’s architects designed an elaborate house for him. This home was called Palatium, meaning on the site of Palatine. The word served a simple purpose, that of geographic identification, and had nothing to do with majesty or riches. Later, the French kings called their homes palais. The word came to English as paleys, and became palace later. Mansion comes from the Latin manere or to dwell, and this gave English the word manor as well. The Latin mansionis too came from the same root, giving the word mansion. Similarly, residence comes through French from the Latin resideo or sit-back, meaning a place where you sit back and take it easy.

 
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In times gone by, the parlour was the room kept aside for receiving guests. It owes its origin to the French parler, to speak. The first ones, called parlatoriums in Latin, were the special chambers in monasteries where the monks were allowed to break their long silences and speak to each other or visitors. Yesterday’s parlour is today’s drawing room, a word that has its origin in the social customs of the time. In the seventeenth century-British society, after dinner the men lingered over their wines and cigars and the women retired to what they called a ‘withdrawing room’, which got shortened to today’s drawing room.

The bureau was not a wooden cupboard when the word took birth. Bureau comes from the Old French burel, a coarse woollen cloth that was used to cover writing desks. Soon burel changed to bureau, the name of the cloth was transferred to the object it covered and the French writing desk became an English chest of drawers for the bedroom. In earlier times, a bed would carry a canopy as a mark of splendour. Canopy comes from the Greek konopos, meaning gnat or mosquito. In order to avoid insects at night, the Greeks slept on a konopeion, a bed enclosed within netting. The word applied to the protective curtains as well and came to English through Latin. Canopy is today used for any covering. The canapés served as an accompaniment with cocktails are from the same source, but by way of French. The topping on a canapé is like a cover.

The humble sofa-back was earlier called antimacassar. Antimacassar had a very practical origin. This decorative covering on the backs of chairs was used to protect them against (anti) the macassar oil which people normally used for the hair. Since the oil came from Mangksara island, it was commercially called macassar oil.

Tap-root

Growth in the vocabulary of a language takes place in many ways. The prevalence of a set of two terms for one concept is one of these ways. In Hindi, a different set of words are used for religious activities, adding to the number of words in the lexicon. A religious book, for instance, is called a granth and not a kitaab, paani is jal, khana is bhog, phera is parikrama and aag jali becomes agni prachand hui.

— Deepti

This feature was published on February 3, 2001