Travelling through Toronto today, I saw a large advertisement for 2-storey penthouses in a new building soon to be built. I’ve just had a look at their advertising brochure online. The places are indeed at the top of a building, and undeniably swish with large terraces and high ceilings and so forth. Mind you, three of the five for sale are less than 750 square feet (not counting the terraces), and the other two are in the 1300 and 1400 square foot range. And I’m sure they’re all listing in the seven figures…
The marketing material is all about life at the top and upward mobility. Cute puns, of course, but they sure do play into the image: a penthouse is the diadem at the top of a high building (like the top of the h in the word penthouse), the special space above the rest with luxurious appointments, the quarters to which urban dwellers aspire. A penthouse is a place where you can luxuriate in all you’ve spent, a place where a playboy (hmm, penthouse, playboy) can satisfy his pent-up desires to get into the penties (or whatever) of top models, perhaps on pretext of painting them or photographing them with his Pentax.
It is, in short, the exact opposite of, say, a little sloped-roof shed annex onto the side of a house. The penthouse is no shabby appendix! It is the apex!
This would, of course, be the point where I tell you that penthouse comes originally (by way of Norman French appentice) from Latin appendix, brought into English as pentice and ultimately reanalyzed as penthouse, the pent part being thought of as the (now uncommon) word for a sloped roof. And that it originally referred to a little sloped-roof annex to a building: a shed, a porch, an outhouse.
So how did it get to the top of a building? In the late 1800s, the janitor or caretaker of a sizeable building might have a residence built for him on the roof of the building. So it was an addition to the building, just on the top rather than on the side. From that it came to refer to a residence on the top level of a building. And of course it happens that those residences are normally the most expensive and desirable, thanks to elevators (otherwise the added flights of stairs to walk up and down would make them a bit less appealing). So there we go.
Actually, we don’t go there in my building. Sensibly, the 33-storey building I live in has the exercise room, jacuzzi, and party rooms on the top floor. And the apartments on the 32nd floor have to put up with noise from above! So the best suites are really two floors below the top… and you really can’t call those penthouses, whether or not they have playboys in them.