I’m still reading Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, and I’ve gotten to the part where the title is explained. First, on p. 176:

The ogee curve was repeated in the mirrors and pelmets and in the wardrobes, which looked like Gothic confessionals; but its grandest statement was in the canopy of the bed, made of two transecting ogees crowned by a boss like a huge wooden cabbage. It was as he lay beneath it, in uneasy post-coital vacancy, that the idea of calling Wani’s outfit Ogee had come to him: it had a rightness to it, being both English and exotic, like so many things he loved. The ogee curve was pure expression, decorative not structural; a structure could be made from it, but it supported nothing more than a boss or the cross that topped an onion dome. […] The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compusions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back. He didn’t think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell—he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty.

Then, on p. 196, a fuller exposition:

“So you’ve got a name for the bloody thing.”

“Yah, we’re calling it Ogee, like the company,” Wani said, very straightforwardly.

Bertrand pursed his plump lips. “I don’t get it, what is it…? ‘Oh Gee!,'” is that it?” he said, bad-tempered but pleased to have made a joke. “You’ll have to tell me again because no one’s ever heard of this bloody ‘ogee.'”

“I thought he was saying ‘Orgy,'” said Martine.

“Orgy?!” said Bertrand.

Wani looked across the table, and since this unheard-of name had originally been his idea Nick said, “You know, it’s a double curve, such as you see in a window or a dome.” He made the shape of half an hourglass with his hands raised in the air, just as Monique, in one of her occasional collusive gestures, did the same and smiled at him as if salaaming.

“It goes first one way, and then the other,” she said.

“Exactly. It originates in… well, in the Middle East, in fact, and then you see it in English architecture from about the fourteenth century onwards. It’s like Hogarth’s line of beauty,” Nick said, with a mounting sense of fatuity, “except that there are two of them, of course… I suppose the line of beauty’s a sort of animating principle, isn’t it…” He looked around and swooped his hand suggestively in the air. It wasn’t perhaps the animating principle here.

First off, I love the writing: “a boss like a huge wooden cabbage”! It’s also interesting that Hollinghurst changes Hogarth’s phrase, which is “line of grace”; in Analysis of Beauty (1754), he writes: “that sort of proportioned, winding line, which will hereafter be called the precise serpentine line, or line of grace.”

But there’s actually an item of etymological interest, which is the word ogee itself; it may be historically identical with ogive. OED (both entries updated March 2004) for ogee:

Origin uncertain; perhaps shortened < ogive n., or perhaps < an unattested Anglo-Norman *ogé < an unattested post-classical Latin *obviatum, use as noun of neuter singular past participle of classical Latin obviāre obviate v., the sense being assumed to be ‘going against’ and hence ‘supporting’.

And for ogive:

< Old French, Middle French, French ogive diagonal arc under a vault (1260), also œgive (1325), augive (1347), orgive (1399), osive, oisive (1462–3), oysive (1472), further etymology uncertain and disputed: perhaps < Spanish aljibe cistern (1202 as algib, 1278 as algibe) < Spanish Arabic al-jubb < al the + jubb well, cistern, pit (see note below), or perhaps < an unattested derivative (see –ive suffix) of classical Latin obviāta, feminine past participle of obviāre (see obviate v.), the sense being assumed to be ‘going against’ and hence ‘supporting’. French augive is also attested in sense 2 (1606). Compare post-classical Latin ogiva (1289, 1325 in British sources).
The proposed Spanish-Arabic etymology implies that the cistern is subterranean and supported by pillars with groined vaulting; support has been drawn from the correspondence between French voute d’ogive (1676) and Spanish bóveda de aljibe, lit. ‘vault of a cistern’ (1661), but this phrase is attested much later than the French or English words. The etymology remains uncertain: see further G. B. Pellegrini Gli Arabismi nelle Lingue Neolatine (1972) 89 n. 93.

The etymological conjectures recorded by N.E.D. (1902) (connection with French auge trough; with Italian auge (1336), Spanish auge (1256–76), Portuguese auge (1460–8) ‘the highest point of any planet’ (Florio), culmination, highest point < Arabic awj; or with classical Latin augēre to increase, augment) have now been superseded.

It always gives me perverse pleasure when the OED (ex-NED) explicitly rejects its old etymologies, as in the last paragraph above. (Oh, and if you’re wondering about the pelmets in the first quote, a pelmet is “A narrow border of cloth or wood, fitted across the top of a door or window to conceal curtain fittings,” and it’s probably “a variant of palmette n. …, palmette designs having been a conventional ornament on window cornices” — OED, entry updated 2003.)


  1. What’s USian for pelmet ?

  2. Stefan Holm says:

    Does valance ring a bell for a USian? Swedish gardinkappa (gardin = curtain) translates into ‘valance, pelmet’ on google translate.

  3. I thought valances were the frilly things that go under your mattress and hang down. But maybe it’s different in America.

  4. Yes, I think we say valance (though I had to learn the word from my wife).

  5. Jen, in my experience in the US those are bed skirts or dust ruffles, but they’re not exactly something I deal with regularly.

  6. Wikipedia says that pelmets are wood and permanent, whereas valances are fabric. A window treatment that is wood covered with fabric is a cornice.

  7. In the U.S., that is.

  8. You learn something every day. Not that I’ll remember it.

  9. And now that I think of it, I remember her teaching me the phrase “window treatment” as well.

  10. AJP 'Des' Pinklers says:

    No, you don’t want to believe everything in Wikipedia. A pelmet isn’t necessarily wood or permanent. It’s often covered in the same fabric as the curtains. It’s not a word I’ve heard often since about 1965-70, when those people who still had curtains started to hang them from rings on thick, exposed brasslike rods. Valance is the US equivalent and they aren’t necessarily fabric (blind valances, for example). A cornice is the upper part of an entableture in the classical language of architecture (see Wiki page). Apparently decorators and the odd contractor also use cornice to mean a window valance, but that’s just silly. There are two kinds of ogee moulding in classical architecture: to cut a long story short, if you think of an ogee as an S curve, the S where the central section is vertical is called a cyma recta; if the centre is horizontal, it’s a cyma reversa. You can see them both here.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    une ogive

    The TLFI derives Eng ogee form a supposed Anglo-Norman *ogé unltimately from Lat obviatum, but Fr ogive from a probable Latin *obviativa, a derivative of obviatum.

    It discards the Arabo-Spanish etymology previously accepted since the Spanish word is not attested until the 17th century, while the architectural form is much older.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    As for valance, the French word is la cantonnière. This is a piece of the same cloth as the curtains, hung on a separate rod, that covers their tops but stays in place. I am not sure how to translate pelmet, I thought it was cantonnière also but the TLFI and Larousse disagree.

  13. I remember I found all this stuff very complicated when my wife tried to explain it to me.

  14. A pelmet has fabric or wallpaper as a finish and it’s attached to a piece of masonite or similar that is set flush with the wall above the window opening. It conceals the ugly hanging hardware of old curtains: hooks, small metal or nylon wheels etc.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    I know what a pelmet is, I just can’t remember what the French equivalent is, if it is not cantonnière.

  16. Graham Hope says:

    I though Cornice was more a term used online in plaster products. How wrong I was.


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