Thursday, February 15, 2007

Grotesque

The -esque suffix is of French origin, and it usually betrays a word borrowed from the Italian, a word that ended in -esco in that language. In turn, that was a descendent of the Latin ending -iscus. Some well-known -esque words include arabesque, picturesque, statuesque, and grotesque. In each case, the suffix means "resembling or in the manner of."

Grotesque is particularly interesting. Literally, it referred to “a painting in the manner of a grotto.” The reference was to the chambers of ancient Roman buildings uncovered by archeological digs. They often contained murals of a fanciful nature, where combined human and animal forms were portrayed. The element of fantasy was very strong in these pictures, and distortion and exaggeration were the norm.

Ultimately, the word was applied to anything bizarre or absurd--people, events, landscapes, statues, etc. For a while, the British slang term grotty--a derivative of grotesque--referred to something unpleasant or miserable.

The word grotto was a descendent of the Greek verb kruptein, to conceal. Thus, crypt, cryptic, encryption, and Kryptonite are kissing cousins.


Sidebar: grotesquerie


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