Architecture can be a rich trove of arch trivia. It has many fine and lengthy words for things you may never have noticed, words that bear a patrician stamp of virtue and distinction, as though clad in a chiton or a toga – or both. Words that have the elaboration and delicacy of an epistolary novel (“Dearest ——: Would that our names were for aye engraved in each of the myriad Architraves of the Eternal City!”). Words that have the swash and filigrees of an archduke’s épée stylings.
And the fineness of detail with which these things can be defined! It matches the geekery applied to heavy metal subgenres and ballroom dance. Consider: “The architrave is different in the different orders. In the Tuscan, it only consists of a plain face, crowned with a fillet, and is half a module in height. In the Doric and composite, it has two faces, or fasciae; and three in the Ionic and Corinthian, in which it is 10/12 of a module high, though but half a module in the rest.” (Thank you, Geekypedia, I mean Wikipedia.)
What are we talking about? Well, we know it must be something very important. After all, it has that arch in it, which brings us such arched eyebrows: belonging perhaps to an overlean sort with greying temples, rings under the eyes, a turtleneck, and a vintage Saab (must be an architect), or perhaps to a bearded bloke who sips sherry and prefers purple with a pointy headpiece (ah, the archbishop), or a mustachio-twirling or cat-stroking twitchy twerp with evil designs tattooed in his thought bubble (the archvillain!), or maybe a forty-foot-long slimy ocean-dweller with enormous head, enormous eyes, and incredible tentacles (Architeutethis dux, the giant squid). Arch (and in this case archi) comes from Greek ἀρχός arkhos “chief”. OK, but chief among what? Top dog of what?
And what of this trave – one may think of travertine, a rather fancy-sounding building material (a kind of Italian limestone), or rave, or brave, grave, crave: words with such fervour, such intensity. Or travesty, of course.
Travesty? You may wish to avert your eyes, turn your chair; this macaronic miscegenation of a word – half Greek but half Latin (for trave comes from Latin trabs “beam”) – signifies the lowest division of the entablature, a beam resting directly on the abacus of a column, a row of stone surmounted by the frieze (ah, the frieze! such artistry is seen thereon!) and the cornice (oh, the giddying heights!). The entablature is in a lofty position, true, atop the columns, though not so high as the pediment (which has a name that sounds suggestive of feet, for heaven’s sake), but the architrave has the lowliest job of the three and, perhaps in compensation, the most impressive name (like a janitor named Phineas Melchior Winthrop III) – in fact, it has two names: it is also called the epistyle. But though it be lowest, it is truly chiefest; rest assured that the frieze and cornice would not rest assured without it.
Say, which name do you prefer for it? The complex and deceptive architrave, with its ch making a “k” sound and its t making (thanks to the r) the “ch” sound, its progression from hard at the back of the mouth to half-soft at the tongue tip to fricative on the lips, and the first a mid-mouth but the second narrowing in the front? Or the pure Greek epistyle, with its delicate touch and smooth style, suited to épées and epistles? Shall the names duel, or shall we accept a dual name?