But, soft! what etymon through yonder window breaks?
It is Old Norse, with English just begun.
I ought not to mangle sweet sentences put upon Romeo’s lips by the bard Shakespeare. But, low-born varlet that I am, I succumbed to punny alteration. With what I write below, I beg your forgiveness and your attention for this essay, my little fenestral boogie.
To open some window words, the earliest term in Old English for a hole in a wall that let in air, wind and light was eyethurl or, as Anglo-Saxon scribes wrote it, éagþyrel = éag ‘eye’ + Old English noun þyrel thyrel, thurl, thyrl ‘perforated hole, pierced opening, aperture < thorough a noun use of an adverbial form ‘orifice, made hole’ + -el English Germanic suffix, chiefly diminutive, so that the compound thyrel means ‘small cut hole in some object.’
Has the word thurl totally disappeared from contemporary English speech? Not quite. One of the two external holes in your nose to speakers of older English was nosþirl, later nosðyrl, later still in Middle English noistrell, and by 1677 in Paradise Lost John Milton spelled it nostril ‘nose-thurl, nose-hole.’
“Fling Wide the Window Shutters, Ragnar, Slaughter is Near.”
Between the late eighth century and the eleventh century Viking raiders invaded England, bringing new words as well as old death. Then it was that, into eyethurl’s Anglo-Saxon territory, came an Old Norse word destined to wipe out eyethurl. The Vikings were pagan plunderers, bloodthirsty piratical marauders from Denmark, Norway and Sweden who spoke Old Norse, also called Old Scandinavian, the mother-tongue of modern Norse, Danish and Swedish.
That word in Old Norse that replaced eyethurl was vindauga made up of vindr ‘wind’ + auga ‘eye.’ Think of its cognate in German Augen ‘eyes’ and the German phrase for a moment, ein Augenblick ‘the blink of an eye.’ Thus a window was a wind-eye — quite an apt name. It withstood divers orthographical metamorphoses to arrive at the modern spelling: window; these included Middle English forms like wyndouge, wondowe, wyndew and finally window. The Viking word drove eyethurl completely out of the English vocabulary, replacing it in every instance.
Good Fensters Make Good Neighbours
At the very onset of modern English early in the seventeenth century there was a synonym for window, though one not in frequent use, and that was fenester, brought into English through French, modern French fenêtre. French inherited it from Latin fenestra ‘window.’ German imported it as das Fenster ‘ the window.’ The Latin fenestra was cognate with the Greek verb phainein ‘to show, to let light in, to make an appearance.’
Please Check Your Czech at the Window
The Latin word gives us a pleasingly obscure word known principally to devotees of European history: the Defenestrations of Prague. Defenestration names the act of tossing someone or something out of a window, the Latin radical fenestra clearly visible within the window word. States Wikipedia: “The First Defenestration of Prague involved the killing of seven members of the city council by a crowd of radical Czech Husssites on 30 July 1419.” The second and more important but less fatal Defenestration of Prague occurred on May 23, 1618 when “three figures fluttered down from a high window of the Castle Hradshin in the heart of Prague. Landing in a convenient heap of rubbish, they escaped with their lives. Thus began the Thirty Years War (1618–48) in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic).”
John Ruskin, English aesthete, art critic, writer and exquisite stylist of The Stones of Venice, 1851 CE, coined a neat modifier which — alas — has proved of no use whatsoever to any other writer. But I liked it: “A northern apse is a southern one with its interfenestral piers set edgeways.” It is meet for the engaging plenitude of English that we possess a learned adjective that signifies ‘between windows.’ I am shocked that architectural journals have seen no reason to take up interfenestral, a hill-and-dale word, delicious to utter aloud with its metrical feet comprised of a troche (inter ¯ ˘) and an amphibrach (fenestral = ˘ ¯ ˘ ).
The German noun for defenestration is perhaps even choicer than the English one: der Fenstersturz. It is taut with Teutonic efficacy. One can almost hear in the word the sound of an insufferable lout plunging to a pavement below, where he is found deservedly impaled by spicules of shattered glass.
Open Window as Metaphor
Manifold are the metaphorical uses of the word window. Here shall I content myself by reporting but one. There is a use I appreciate in the King James version of the Book of Genesis, in 7:11, where the Bible makes bold to attach a precise date to Noah’s flood. “In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” Dude, that’s a rainstorm.
Earlier English versions of the Bible had snappier translations. The early Wycliffe Bible calls them “the goteris of heuene” ‘the gutters of heaven’ and the Douay Bible speaks of "the floodgates of heaven," which is a literal translation of the Hebrew of the Torah ărubbōth hashshāmayim ‘and the floodgates of the sky.’ The Koine Greek is crisp too: katarraktai tou ouranou ‘the gushing waterfalls of heaven.’ The timidly alliterative, copycat Latin of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate is less powerful, cataractæ cæli, although those hard Roman c-sounds clack loudly.
But enough of roaring waters. Let us lift the latch and close the lattice-work of the window. Then for a refreshing lunch shall we dart to my humble refectory table — nothing fancy you understand — a russet mahogany credenza with contre-partie marquetry inlaid with Macassar ebony, steamed pearwood, lignum vitae and wenge. Upon the spalted beech wine-tray rests a stoppered flask of azurn cordial, fermented from summer’s bounty of plump blueberries.
Bill Casselman, July 29, 2017
Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman
At the Wording Desk
Increase your knowledge of English language history by learning the sources of our word 'window'