A cool idea for a hot season makes a splash

'Water features' trace their origin – etymologically and literally – back to ancient Babylon and Rome.

John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
Isaac Howard, 5, plays in a water feature during a visit with his family to the splash pad at Elver Park in Madison, Wis. on July 21, 2016.

Dana Park, about three minutes’ walk from my house, is usually full of people. But it was nearly empty as I walked by the other day.

A man on a small riding mower was cutting the lawn in that back-and-forth pattern that is sometimes referred to as boustrophredonic, from Greek words meaning “ox turning.” 

Some early writing systems, notably ancient Greek, followed this pattern, rather than going simply left to right or right to left with each new line. But as I took a seat to follow the progress of the mowing, I was drawn more by the smell of the fresh air and the freshly cut grass than anything else.

It had been a long, hot, sticky morning at my desk.

Just a few other people were there in the park, on benches at the edge of the main lawn. Off in the distance, at the most remote corner from where I sat, I saw a refreshing sight: a couple of young children, under grandmotherly (I assume) supervision, cavorting under a couple of jets of water shooting up from the ground.

Oh, yes, I thought, a water feature. 

Dictionaries define water feature as a landscaping term: a fountain or pond or stream in a garden or park, or occasionally in the backyard of a middle-class home, especially one whose owners have, shall we say, aspirations. 

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, said to have been watered by a type of Archimedean screw, were a water feature – if indeed, they ever really existed, about which there seems to be some doubt. 

But “water feature” has another life as a catch-all term for anything that provides, especially in an urban setting, an experience roughly equivalent to letting the kids run under the sprinklers – or even of splashing in the streams of an (illegally?) opened fire hydrant. 

If you’re a municipal director of parks and recreation, a water feature, I imagine, must look like a very cost-effective substitute for a swimming pool. 

What a hardworking word feature is, by the way. It’s a verbal descendant of the Latin facere, meaning to make or do or perform. It shows up in factory, manufacturing (etymologically “making things by hand”), satisfactory (referring to that which “does enough” to please the customer or the professor or the boss. It shows up, in fact, even in the word fact itself. Feat, a thing that is done, is a close cousin that came into English via French.

Feature came into English in the 14th century to refer to something made or fashioned, often a human body or body part. The human sense of the word soon narrowed to refer more specifically to facial features. 

The Online Etymology Dictionary reports that by 1690, feature had come to mean “any distinctive part.” Hence, the features of a landscape, or a water feature in a park.

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