Etymology in Architecture: Tracing the Language of Design to its Roots

Etymology in Architecture: Tracing the Language of Design to its Roots

For many architects writing is an integral part of the design process, one that clarifies or pushes ideas into places sketches can't always reach. But for many, the origins of the words we use to explain and classify our work are a mystery. A look at their origins and derivations offers insight - occasionally surprising - into the evolution of architectural language. 


"Architect" comes from the latin word architectus which comes from the Greek ἀρχιτέκτων (architéktōn). Architéktōn is composed of two parts: ἀρχι (archi: to be the first, who commands) and τέκτων (tecton: mason, builder). That is, the boss who sends the masons.


"Brutalism" comes from the French term béton-brut, which means “crude or raw concrete.” The word béton is used in both France and Germany to refer to concrete, which possibly comes from the Latin word bitumen (Betún), which is considered one of the first agglomerates of the primitive constructive mixtures in ancient Persia and Mesopotamia.


The noun "building" comes from the verbal noun "build." Build, in turn, comes from the Old English blydan, meaning "to construct a house." 


Cubicle comes from the Latin word Cubiculum, which is a possible combination of the verb Cubare (to lie down or bend) and Culum (the means of producing an action). That is, the means of lying down. It is also interesting to understand how “cubicle” relation to the Latin word Cubus (the geometric figure of the cube).


“Concrete” has its origins in Latin concretus (hardened, rigid). Concretus is composed of con- (union) and the past participle of the verb crĕscere (to grow)—literally, "grown together.” The word can also be attributed to the Proto-Indo-European word ker (also “to grow”).


The literal “diagram” comes from the Latin diagramma (design, layout), and this from the Greek διάγραμμα (diagram, design).


“Edifice” comes from the Latin word aedificĭum (building), which is derived from the word aedes, which referred to a temple or sanctuary. Aedes, interestingly, comes from the proto-Indo-European origin aidh- which means "to burn." An edifice, then, is potentially a place where one goes to escape a fire. 


Empty comes from the Old English æmettig, which described either something that contained nothing or one who was “at leisure” or unoccupied. With time, the former definition became more prominent—an evolution that can be found in many languages, such as Modern Greek. 


This new word comes from the word “gentry,” a type of denomination for the English historical social class of the high bourgeoisie.


The English “habitat” comes from the Latin habĭtat, from habitáre (to inhabit) the present infinitive active of habitô (I reside, I remain, I live). It’s possible that the word is derived from the Italic languages, where the word habeō refers to having or possessing.


“Horizon” comes from the Latin horīzon, which comes from the present participle of the Ancient Greek verb ὁρίζω (to limit), which comes from ὅρος (the limit).


The modern English word “house” comes from the Old English word hus, which in turn comes from the Proto-Germanic husan. In Gothic, the similar term gudhus meant temple (literally “God house”) rather than a personal residence. 


This word comes from Latin materia, which is linked to the meaning of both “wood” and “matter.” Some point out that it could also have originated with the Latin mater, which means “mother,” in relation to a raw substance.


This word comes from the Old French place, which in turn comes from the Latin platea, which referred to a "courtyard, open space; broad way, avenue.” Of the same Latin origin are the Italian piazza and the Spanish plaza. 


This word comes from the Latin modŭlus, which means small measure or interval. Modŭlus is made up of the word modus (measure) and the suffix -ulo, which refers to a diminutive or instrument.


“Morphology” is composed of the Greek words μορφο (morph) which means form, and λογία (-ology) which refers to treatise, study or science.


This word from the Latin scala, which means “staircase,” seems to have been adopted from scandō (ascend), possibly adopted from an ancestral word skend (jump).


This word has its origin in the Latin spatium (space, distance, interval), or possibly proto-Indo-European speh- ("stretch, pull").


This word is formed from the composition of the prefix sub- (below) and portō (carry, load) that makes up the Latin word supportāre. That is, to carry or load something from below.


This word comes from type, which comes from the Latin typus, which in turn comes from the Greek τύπος, which referred to a mark, impression, relief, figure, image. It is joined with the suffix "-logy” which refers to treaty, study or science. 


“Urbanism” is derived from the the Latin word urbe with the suffix “-ism,” which is used to refer to a doctorate, system, or mode. Urbe comes from urbs, which means city or town surrounded by walls.


“Vernacular” (which can be used to describe both architecture and language) comes from the Latin vernaculus (native, domestic, indigenous). It’s also possible that the word came from verna, a 'home-born slave', or a native-born, indigenous person.


“Wall” comes from the Old English weall, which comes from the Latin vallum, which referred to both the wall in the contemporary sense and to a “rampart” or a “row or line of stakes.” 


“Window” comes from the Old Norse vindauga, which literally means “wind eye.” In a similar vein, the Old English eagþyrl literally meant "eye-hole," and eagduru literally "eye-door."

Note: Some terms have various origins. In those cases, we’ve opted for the most frequently used and attributed. There are also many etymological variations based on region and language. All the above words propose one approach to understanding architectural etymologies; we encourage a continued search to investigate the origins of words. We hope this perspective will, in turn, help us understand architecture a little better.  

About this author
Cite: Dejtiar, Fabian. "Etymology in Architecture: Tracing the Language of Design to its Roots" 30 Jul 2018. ArchDaily. (Trans. Comberg, Ella) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.