Spandrels and squinches

While reading an interesting post on Babel’s Dawn today, I came across the word spandrel. I have heard it before but wasn’t entirely sure what it meant.

According to Wikipedia, a spandrel is “the space between two arches or between an arch and a rectangular enclosure”. The word spandrel is also used in the theory of evolution to describe a non-adaptive trait formed as a side effect to an adaptive one, which the context in which it was used on Babel’s Dawn.

The information about spandrels also mentions a related architectural term: squinch, which is a “piece of construction used for filling in the upper angles of a square room so as to form a proper base to receive an octagonal or spherical dome”.

Another definition tells us that a squinch is an arch, or a system of concentrically wider and gradually projecting arches, placed at the corners of a square base to act as the transition to a circular dome placed on the base.

The etymology of spandrel is somewhat uncertain, but it’s thought to come from the Latin word expandre, to expand, via the French espandre, to expand, extend.

Squinch is an alternative form of scuncheon, from the Middle English sconchon, from the Old French escoinson, from the Latin ex, out, plus cuneus, wedge.

Here’s an illustration to help you tell the difference between spandrels and squinches.

an illustration of spandrels and a squinch

This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

5 Responses to Spandrels and squinches

  1. BG says:

    I wouldn’t have guessed that both words were from Latin originally. Squinch especially seemed Germanic to me, but came into the Modern English through French and then Middle English, so changed. Spandrel seemed a little bit more Romance.

  2. Travis says:

    I love languages… and got a kick out of the previous post about foreign language isle addiction in book stores… and I also love architecture. I’ve heard the words ‘spandrel’ and ‘squinch’ before… but had no idea what they meant. The illustrations make them clear. There’s something very alphabetic about the shapes in architecture. Especially ornate examples. If I’m not mistaken, didn’t the Mayans actually base some of their buildings and pottery on glyphs? … while the Sphynx might be a hieroglyph.

  3. “Squinch”, if I recall, also has a meaning in the Harry Potter series, that’s different from any of what you listed–I think it’s defined as what happens if you accidentally don’t transport ALL of yourself when you teleport from place to place (you end up with a slice of yourself missing when you arrive). I’m pretty sure that’s referred to as “squinching” or “squinching yourself.”

  4. Simon says:

    Minstrel – is certainly sounds like the kind of word you’d find in the Harry Potter books, but isn’t, as far as I can tell. The word you’re thinking of is splinch.

  5. Oops! Thanks for the correction, and yes…it was “splinch.”

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