Word Connections: Window & Door

In this episode of Word Connections, we look at the words “window” and “door”, including the origins of the words, related words, and connections to other European languages. We’ll start with the word “window”, which has some fascinating connections. The most obvious link is to another English word — “wind”, although this connection is more convoluted than it appears, because “window” did not come directly from “wind”.

The word “wind” has been a part of English for a very long time, unchanged from the days of Old English. The same word wind is still used in German and Dutch, two languages that share their Germanic origins with Old English. The Scandinavian languages Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish all use the very similar word vind to mean wind.

Back when Old English was spoken in much of what is now England, the eastern part of the island spoke Old Norse, a Scandinavian language brought over by the Vikings. In their language, “wind” was vindr. When they cut an opening into the wall of a building to let air in or smoke out, they compared the opening to an eye. Their word for eye was auga, and therefore their word for “window” was vindauga, which literally means “wind-eye”. This word eventually entered English as “window”, and originally meant an unobstructed opening in a wall, without any glass.

Just as in English, the Spanish word for “window” is connected to the concept of letting in air. The Spanish word is ventana, derived from the Latin word ventus, which means wind. Therefore ventana has the same original meaning as “window” — an opening in a wall that allows the wind to enter. The Spanish word for “wind” has gradually changed over the centuries, evolving from the original ventus to the current word viento. Therefore the connection between ventana (window) and viento (wind) may be slightly less obvious in Spanish than it is in English.

The French word for “wind” is vent, also derived from the Latin word ventus. (The Italian word vento is quite similar.) The obvious connection here is back to English, where we use the word “vent” to refer to an opening that allows wind (but not light) to enter. Most often, when we use the word “vent” in English, we are referring to a metal grating in a wall or ceiling, which allows the output of an air conditioning system to enter the room. So when we refer to that grating as a “vent”, we are drawing a connection to the artificial wind that the opening emits. However, we sometimes use the word “vent” in other contexts. For example, a rain jacket may have vents that allow the jacket to breathe, without allowing rain to get in. So once again, the purpose of the vent is to allow the passage of air. And of course, we also use the word “ventilation”, also derived from the Latin word for wind, to describe the process of allowing fresh air to enter an enclosed space.

Unlike English and Spanish, in French there is no connection between the words for “window” and “wind”. While the French word for wind is vent, the French word for window is fenêtre, which is derived from the Latin word for window, fenestra. Several other European languages use similar words, such as the Italian finestra and the German Fenster. The Latin word fenestra originally came from Greek words meaning “bringing light”. The upshot is that the English and Spanish words for “window” are based on the concept of letting in air, while the French, Italian, and German words are based on the concept of letting in light.

At one point, several European languages had two different words for windows — one for a hole that let in air, and another for an opening covered by glass that let in light. This distinction was especially common in the Germanic languages. Thus in English, a glass window was once called a “fenester”. But that word fell out of favor long ago, and now we use the word “window” for any opening in a wall, without or without glass.

It may seem that there is no connection between fenestra, the Latin word for window, and the modern English language. But in fact, there are some obscure connections. For example, the English word “defenestrate” means to throw something out a window. “Defenestrate” can also mean to murder someone by pushing him or her out a window. The noun form of this word is “defenestration”. There were times in European history when defenestration was a popular method of assassinating high-level political officials. In 1618, two imperial governors were thrown out the window of Prague Castle. This incident, known as the Defenestration of Prague, ultimately led to the Thirty Years War. More than three centuries later, when communist forces were completing their takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the foreign minister of the country (Jan Masaryk) was an apparent victim of defenestration — again in Prague.

The similar word “fenestration” can also be found in English, although the word is not common. At first glance, the word looks like it should signify the exact opposite of “defenestration” — perhaps pulling someone in through a window instead of pushing him out. But in fact, the word “fenestration” refers to the arrangement of windows in a building, or to the design of the windows. As a medical term, the same word can refer to the process of cutting an opening into some part of the body — in effect, opening a window. A closely related medical term is “fenestra” (Latin for “window”), which refers to a small opening, such as in a bone.

The English word for “door” comes from the Old English duru or dor. Very similar words are found in the Scandinavian languages — dør in Danish and Norwegian, and dörr in Swedish. Similar words are also found in the Germanic languages — deur in Dutch and Tür in German. All of these words share a common origin, and so does the German word Tor, which means “gate”.

In Latin the word for “door” was ostium, but the word for “gate” was porta. Oddly, it was porta, not ostium, that gave rise to the modern word for “door” in all of the Romance languages — such as porta in Italian, porte in French, and puerta in Spanish. In these languages, the distinction between “door” and “gate” largely disappeared, and a single word came to represent both meanings. However, in modern Italian, the distinction between “door” and “gate” has returned, and now the word cancello is often used to mean “gate”.

Surprisingly, the Italian word cancello shares a common origin with the English words “cancel” and “cancellation”. All of these words are derived from the Latin word cancelli, which is a diminutive term for “crossbars” or “latticework”. Our English word “cancel” comes from the practice of crossing out a word by drawing several lines through the word — some of the lines in one direction, and some of the lines in another direction. Thus people would “cancel” a word by obscuring it behind a latticework of lines. A gate, of course, is often constructed of a set of sturdy crossbars, so the Italian word cancello also makes perfect sense. The Spanish word carcel, which means “jail”, comes from a related origin.

Another little surprise is that the Latin word for “gate” managed to find its way into several non-Latin languages. In both Danish and Norwegian, the word for “gate” is port, and in Dutch the word for “gate” is poort.

In English, our word “portal” comes from the Latin word for “gate”, but our word “port” comes from the Latin word for port. In Latin, the words for “gate” and “port” are nearly identical, porta versus portus. This is understandable, because a port is like a gateway between the land and the sea. And in the Latin languages, the word for “gate” was also applied to doors. Therefore, in the various languages derived from Latin, the word for “port” is nearly the same as the word for “door” — port in French, porto in Italian, and puerto in Spanish.

The Latin word portus can be translated not only as “port”, but also as “haven” or “harbor”. Again this makes sense, because a port provides a haven for ships during rough weather. In several Germanic and Scandinavian languages, the modern word for “port” is a close relative of our English word “haven” — Hafen in German, havn in Norwegian, and havnen in Danish.

And now it is time to close the door on the current installment of Word Connections. Stay tuned for more episodes in the near future!

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