Ensconced

2006-12-26

A call came in over the language line last weekend regarding "ensconced" ("hidden away") -- in particular, is it related at all to "sconce" (in the sense of "a lantern-like wall lamp")?

Well, I'm glad you asked! It turns out there may be a relationship here, but it's a tangled tale of linguistic evolution punctuated by prefixes and suffixes, lengthening and shortening, addition and subtraction, derivation and projection. It all starts with those crazy Romans and the Latin word "do", meaning "to give" or "to put" (the English equivalents have hundreds of meanings, and so does the Latin original). Add the prefix "com/con" ("together") and you have "condo", meaning "to put together" or "to stow" (is that what people do with their condos?). Add another prefix "ab/abs" ("away") and you have "abscondo", meaning "to stow away" or "to hide away" (thus English "abscond").

So much for building up, now we start taking away. The Latin "absconsa laterna" was a "hidden lantern" or "dark lantern" (i.e., a portable lantern with a screen for protecting the flame). The medievals lopped off the "laterna", calling it "absconsa" and, eventually, "sconsa" (in Old French "esconse"). Thus the modern English "sconce" (I suppose eventually folks stopped carrying those lanterns around and attached them to a convenient wall -- or at least the design was similar).

That's one kind of sconce. A second meaning of "sconce" is a small earthwork or fort, or a shelter or screen that protects one from weather or fire. Does that kind of sconce enable one to "hide away" (thus deriving from the Latin "abscondo")? Well, maybe. But probably this meaning comes from the Dutch "schans", meaning "brushwood", "bundle of sticks", "earthwork made with gabions" (familiar to those of us who have visited the famous Zaanse Schans) -- with the spelling modified to conform to Romanized English expectations.

What of "ensconce" (sometimes formerly "insconce")? It originally meant "to be in a sconce", where "sconce" was used in the second sense of a protective fortification. Thus to be ensconced was to be safe from harm or attack; eventually the meaning was extended to less martial situations, so that today "ensconce" is used mainly to denote the act of settling into a place that is warm, cozy, and comfortable (what the Dutch call "gezellig").

Language is fun, eh? :-)


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