October 7, 2015

Case File #015.10.07: GARGOYLE

If you stopped random people on the street and asked them to define the word gargoyle, most would be able to give you a basic answer: it's one of those stone carvings depicting fanciful or grotesque creatures and often seen jutting out from the upper edges of old tall buildings. And some may even be able to tell you that a gargoyle—or rather its throat and mouth—is usually part of a gutter or waterspout that carries rainwater clear of a building's edge. But few could tell you that thirteenth-century English speakers derived the noun gargoyle from the Old French gargole (sometimes spelled gargoule or gargouille), which meant “throat” or “gullet” and was itself derived from the Latin gula. Most would not know that the English word's original form was gargurl (or sometimes gargurle or gargule) and simply meant “carved mouth of a downspout,” nor would they be likely to know that the modern form gargoyle didn't appear until the early fifteenth century, when the word also came to denote only the grotesquely ornamented waterspouts. And it's doubtful that any of your average on-the-street respondents could tell you that the Old French gargole is the progenitor of not only the English noun gargoyle but also the verb gargle, even though the connection should be conceptually obvious if not etymologically so: gargle means “to wash one's mouth or throat with a liquid kept in motion by exhaling through it,” and that's pretty much what a gargoyle looks like it's doing as it throws water away from a building during a rainfall.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

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