Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Antic Attic

Roger asked if there’s a connection between attic and antic. Both started as architectural terms, but they came from different directions.

Antic originally referred to decoration that was deliberately grotesque, even monstrous. It might depict animals acting as humans, or vegetation blending into a human body, and it often appeared as a feature in Roman baths.

Incongruity and bizarreness was the norm. Though it was sometimes spelled antique, it derived from an Italian word that was intimately connected with a grotto. [Insert grotto in the search box at the top right of this page.]

Eventually, antic was applied to ludicrous or over-the-top behavior, especially on the part of a theatrical performer, perhaps someone who played the clown or a stereotypical figure. Hamlet warns Horatio that he is going “to put an antic disposition on,” but in that case, it’s more the role of a madman than a jesting man.

Attic came from a Latin word referring to Attica and its capital, Athens. Used in architecture, it designated the smaller decorative structure used to cap a larger façade. By the 18th century, attic was used to name a garret, the top story under the roof beams. Stereotypically, it became the abode of starving artists and poets.

SIDEBAR: Aliens in the Attic

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