Architectural Etymology: by Calder Loth


Classical Comments:  Architectural Etymology

Courtesy of the Classicist Blog:

by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council.


The study of classical architecture introduces us to a multitude of terms for the various parts of the orders. For many it is a completely new vocabulary, one often difficult to learn. An investigation of the etymology of the words can be helpful for remembering many of the terms and understanding their rationale. As with so much specialized terminology, numerous objects received their names because they reminded people of familiar, similar-looking things. We see this happening in scores of different categories. For instance, we call the control device on an instrument panel a button. The glass vacuum vessel encasing an incandescent electric light is a bulb. The name given to the symbol for a program on a computer screen is an icon. (And don’t forget the mouse.) This naming phenomenon is particularly prevalent in classical architecture. For this month’s essay, I have taken terms for elements of the entablature and capital of the Tuscan order and explored why they are called what are and where their names came from. I hope this simple exposition will serve to foster a more informed appreciation of the classical language of architecture. I hope also to explore the etymology of additional classical features and details in future Classical Comments essays.

The image I have used for this investigation is a detail of the Tuscan order illustrated in Abraham Swan’s The British Architect (1758), which offers some of the most precise and beautiful depictions of the classical orders.

*  Denotes that the word is a term defined in the list.



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