At Home With Words

The attic's fall from grace

Attics have long been the home of aspiring artists and old furniture. Though an attic has always been located just under the roof, this room has changed drastically over the years.

"Attic" dates back to ancient Athens, the city-state that dominated the region of Attica. "Attic" referred to things Athenian, and the "Attic story" was a low wall or story above the cornice of a building's faade. "Story" disappeared from the name, leaving us with a room stripped of its grace, but a good place for old books - on architecture, maybe?

Widows' fire precautions

"Widow's walks" are railed-in platforms on the roofs of some imposing early homes. The walks were built next to the chimney, with access through a dormer or trap door. The name derives from the romantic notion that sea captains' wives paced them in the hope of catching sight of their husbands' ships. (Some did not return, hence "widow.")

One would expect homes with widow's walks to be situated by the coast, and they are. But historians now question the walks' original purpose, since they also exist on homes built far inland. Perhaps they had a more practical function, for wherever these structures occurred, they were stocked with buckets of water.

Chimney fires were common in the 18th century. While widow's walks may have served as coastal lookouts, they may have originally been built to provide ready access in case of fire.

No artists in the drawing room

This room has nothing to do with art. Its function lies in its original name: "withdrawing room." In the 16th century, it was an area attached to public rooms where persons of high stature could find some privacy. Two hundred years later, the room's function had changed: Now it was where women retired after dinner, leaving their male companions to chat freely at the dinner table. Later, it was opened to both sexes as a room in which to relax. Time and usage eroded the first syllable of its title.

Who put the 'wind' in 'window'?

Early Norse builders only had wood, stone, and straw with which to build. Houses were primitive. Doors hung on leather thongs. In cold weather, when doors had to be kept closed there needed to be some form of ventilation. So a hole, or eye, was left in the wall. Presumably because the wind whistled through it, it was called a "wind eye." "Wind eye" became "window." And while today's windows keep the wind out, the wind remains in the name.

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