Over at the Log, Mark Liberman quotes a spiky and suggestive short story by D. Barthelme, “They Called for More Structure.” He does so in the context of an analogy to syntax in machine translation that is neither comprehensible nor interesting to me; what is interesting to me is the punchline of the story, where the workers “saw the new city spread out beneath us, in the shape of the word FASTIGIUM. Not the name of the city, they told us, simply a set of letters selected for the elegance of the script.” Huh, I thought, I studied Latin and I don’t remember the word fastigium. So I looked it up in my handy paperback dictionary and found this farrago of senses: “gable; pediment; roof, ceiling; slope; height, elevation, top, edge; depth, depression; finish, completion; rank, dignity; main point, heading, highlight (of story, etc.).” This is how you can tell if you really like a language: if I were dealing with a Greek or Russian word, I would be pleased at the complex semantics, but since it’s Latin I just groan and think “Does any language really need a word like that?” (The first i is long, by the way, and apparently there is no clear etymology.)

It’s been borrowed into English (per the OED in an entry first published in 1895 and not updated since) in the senses “The apex or summit; spec. in Archit. the ridge of a house,” “The gable end (of a roof); a pediment,” and “The acme or highest state of intensity (of a disease)”; the last is the only sense given in the AHD.


  1. Aww, Latin is my favorite language. Anyway, that’s right out of Aeneid 1.

  2. No knock on Latin — I enjoy it and am glad I studied it! It’s just that I want it to stay nice and simple so I can understand it without too much difficulty. Omnia Gallia est divisa, that’s the kind of thing I like.

  3. All Gaul is quartered into three halves, eh?

    Actually, when I started second-year Latin my teacher was at pains to explain that omnis Gallia actually meant not “all (of) Gaul” but something like “Greater Gaul”, divided into Aquitaine (he taught French, too), Belgium, and Gaul proper.

    Or to put it gastronomically: “All Gaul is divided into three parts: the part that cooks with lard and goose fat, the part that cooks with olive oil, and the part that cooks with butter.” —David Chessler

    But to return to the farrago, if we think of it as meaning ‘high/low point’ (as altus means either high or deep in Latin, those being the same from different points of view, what might be glossed as ‘vertically extended’), I think all of the senses can be seen as straightforward metaphorical extensions. I was puzzled for a moment by ‘finish, completion’, but that must be because the ridge-pole goes on last.

  4. Well analyzed!

  5. In my understanding, fastigium is clearly derived from fastus, as in dies fastus.

    All these words are closely linked with unique Latin concept of fas – divine law.

    Latin religion is not really understood all that well.

    We just don’t know what they really did in their temples (on gable end of a roof)

  6. My trusty school Cassell’s gives fastigium as ‘the gable end, pediment of a roof’
    with metaphorical senses:
    1. a slope, either up or down
    2. of measurements, looking up, height; looking down, depth
    3. high rank, dignity
    4. principal point in a subject

  7. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    That Language Log entry was the first one that actually made me feel stupid. There have been several that were beyond my technical understanding, but those were clearly just things I would need to learn more about before I could get them. That one was just opaque to me. Or was that the point?

  8. Fascinating! When talking about calculus (the modern one, not a Latin word) we do not relate extremum to large slope because it’s either goes with 0 slope (rounded top or bottom), or no slope at all (corner or something more difficult) or the end of the interval. But apparently Romans had some other imagery in mind, like pagoda, where apex is also a point of the largest slope. The latter situation in terms of modern calculus goes into “no slope” file.

  9. On the etymology – FWIW, de Vaan (s.v. fa:sti:go, pp. 203-204) notes it as based on a Proto-Italic *farsti:g- / *farsti-ag-, ultimatly going back to PIE *bhrsti- “top, point”, which would make it cognate with English “bristle”. If I recall my Latin historical phonology correctly, the loss of /r/ would be irregular.

  10. Loss of *-r- in a pre-Latin environment *-VrCC- such as in *-rst- would be regular if from earlier *farsti-. Compare Latin poscō “I ask for, call for, demand”, from earlier *porskō, ultimately Proto-Indo-European *pr̥(ḱ)-sḱe-, the *-sḱe/o- present of *preḱ-, “to ask”. My favorite example of the loss of *-r- in this kind of environment is the etymology usually proposed for Latin cēna “meal”, which goes along something like the following lines: cēna, from *kesna, from *kerssna (compare Oscan KERSNÚ and Umbrian çesna “meal, dinner”), from *kertsnā, from a PIE *kert-s-nh₂, “thing cut off, portion”, a derivative of the root *(s)kert- “to cut”.

  11. Very nice indeed!

  12. @ Patrick Taylor: Thank you for reminding me of posco: and ce:na; so yes, there are more example ofa loss of /r/ in similar environments. I clearly need to brush up on the PIE to Latin sound laws.

  13. In the form “fastigiate,” this word is not uncommon in horticultural contexts. It refers to a tree or shrub that grows in a narrow, columnar, even spiky shape. “Vertically extended,” in fact.

Speak Your Mind