Magazine article Verbatim

A Column on Columns

Magazine article Verbatim

A Column on Columns

Article excerpt

When my nephew wanted to know about Greek columns, I figured I didn't need recourse to the dictionary. Like most students of my generation, I learned the three basic types: Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian. "Ionic is the simplest," I began my lecture. "It has a square base--or is that Doric? The one with the leaves at the top, I think that's Corinthian...." My nephew was giving me the fish eye. I realized that what my generation learned was well over a generation ago, and I'd forgotten some of the particulars. "Tell you what. Let's check the dictionary." And I hauled down the unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, a replacement for my poor Webster's New International Dictionary, second edition, that had quietly fallen to pieces over the period 1980 to 1995.

The good part about the Random House edition is that it was published in 1987 and therefore contains words like cryogenic and pheremones that weren't around for earlier dictionaries to include. Also, it has fairly comprehensible entries, perhaps reflecting a more straightforward age. Or so I assumed. But when I looked up the entry for Doric, this is what I found:

"Doric column: a channeled column without a base, having as a capital a circular echinus supporting a square abacus, above which comes a plain architrave, a frieze of triglyphs and metopes, and a cornice the corona of which has mutules on its soffit."

I read it aloud, in increasing wonderment, to my nephew. I knew what was coming.

"What's an ... icky-ness?"

"It's an echinus," I corrected him, "and I don't know, either."

"All right, then, what are meadow peas?"

"Metopes." This time, I quickly thumbed to the entry and read, "metope: any of the square spaces between triglyphs."

"Between what?"

Time for the quick shuffle-and-search again. I found the right page and began to read: "triglyph: the structural part of a frieze, separating two metopes and consisting of a rectangular block with two vertical grooves or glyphs, and two chamfers or half-grooves at the sides, counting as a third glyph, for three flat vertical bands on the face of the block."

"Oh." After a pause the opposite of pregnant, he asked, "So what's an Ionic column?"

I found the entry. "Ionic column: a fluted column with a molded base and a capital composed of four volutes, usually parallel to the architrave with a pulvinus connecting a pair on each side of the column, and an entablature typically consisting of an architrave of three fascias, a richly ornamented frieze, and a cornice corbeled out on egg-and-dart and dentil moldings, with the frieze sometimes omitted."

"Let's play Monopoly," suggested my nephew, and that's what we did for the rest of the afternoon.

But after he left, I also checked Corinthian and found the definition equally opaque: "Corinthian column: similar in most respects to the Ionic but usually of slenderer proportions, and characterized by a deep capital with a round bell decorated with acanthus leaves and a square abacus with concave sides. The Corinthian capital has typically two distinct rows of acanthus leaves above which appear eight fluted sheaths, from each of which spring two helices, of which one curls beneath a corner of the abacus as half of a volute and the other curls beneath the center of the abacus."

I am not a proponent of EZ vocabulary, but I found these definitions singularly unhelpful. My confidence was so shaken that I finally begin looking up words I thought I knew, such as the humble cornice, only to find "the uppermost member of a classical entablature, consisting of a bed molding, a corona, and a cymatium, with rows of dentils, modillions, etc., often placed between the bed molding and the corona." Checking out dentil led to "any of a series of small, rectangular blocks, used especially in classical architecture beneath the coronas of cornices. …

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