Thursday, August 31, 2006


An easel has become the unmistakable symbol of an artist.

It is the upright frame, usually tripodal, upon which the blank canvas is placed, and which can even be used to display the finished painting. It is functional, inert, and unmoving.

So it is startling to learn that the word originally meant an ass—not the insulting kind or the fat-laden kind, but the beast of burden. The Dutch word ezel referred to a donkey, and a donkey was a working animal that carried things.

Ultimately, the word tracks back to the Latin asinus, which referred to the animal best suited to carry a burden. Eventually, it extended metaphorically to a braying fool in that language.
So loading a braying animal with goods to be transported morphed into a device used to hold beautiful paintings.

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