Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Words of the Day: Algarve and Triglyph

Before I could wrap up my investigation into the van den Keere world map of 1611, there was one more nagging question I had to answer: "What the heck does 'ALGAR' mean?" That was the caption for one of the forty vignettes of peoples and cities of the world that formed the map's border. I'd found an Algar in Wikipedia right away, but I knew it was too far inland, and too small, to have made van den Keere's top forty list. So I threw it on the pile of mysteries from that map that I had to solve.

After a lot of Googling, a trip to Room 117 of the New York Public Library, and some help from the Director of the NYPL Map Division, I figured out all the vignettes but that one. Then, today, I found this nifty gallery that shows some old maps with "Algarbia", "d'Algarve" and "Algarve". It turns out that the Algarve is the southwestern tip of Portugal - a region that includes Cape St. Vincent, where Nelson had his famous battle. But the icing on the investigative cake was the etymology: Algarve comes from the Arabic al-gharb, meaning "the West". Neat! The Reconquista drove out the Muslims, but not all of their words.

Next up was my other nagging brainworm: "Where does the word 'triglyph' come from, and why does the word for a squarish architectural feature have the prefix 'tri-'?" Why was I wondering this, you ask? Well, last week I was studying up on Palladian architecture in preparation for my visit to the exhibit at the Peabody Library in Baltimore. My head was swimming with lots of shiny new bauble words, and "triglyph" bobbed right near the top. Grace asked me about the tri- prefix during the drive down to Baltimore on Friday night, thus doubling my curiosity. Then it doubled again at the exhibit on Saturday when I saw the word in a surprising place.

Among the books on Vitruvian architecture was a copy of Giacondo's Vitruvius iterum et Frontinus from 1513. It was opened to the grand engraving that filled the first page of "QVARTUS", or chapter four. But what caught my eye was a small bit of print on the last page of chapter three. Below the text, on the right side of the page, was the word "Triglyphis". Since it was in a position I associate with a signature, I said to myself "Hey! Maybe Triglyphis was a classical architect - a contemporary of Vitruvius - and that's what the triglyph was named after!"

Points for creativity, but accuracy? Not so much. Today I looked up the etymology of the word and found the following on
triglyph (archit.) in the Doric order, block with three vertical grooves. XVI. — L. triglyphus — Gr. trígluphos, f. TRI- + gluphé carving.
Clearly this wasn't named after a man. Just as clearly, the "tri-" comes from the three vertically-split segments. Oh well. Goodbye, imaginary classical architect Triglyphis; hello, new etymological friend. Not a bad exchange.