My wife asked me “Does ensconce have anything to do with the noun sconce?” I looked it up in AHD and found it was EN-1 + SCONCE1, which suggested the answer was “yes,” but I noted the superscript 1 with trepidation, and sure enough, it turns out there are two nouns sconce, and the one the verb is based on is the one nobody but military-history buffs has heard of — at least, I hadn’t heard of it; it means “A small defensive earthwork or fort” and is from Dutch schans, from German Schanze, from Middle High German (further etymology apparently unknown). The sconce my wife and I were familiar with, “A decorative wall bracket for holding candles or lights,” is a totally different word, ultimately from Latin abscōnsa, feminine past participle of abscondere ‘to hide away.’ I thought that was interesting, so here it is.


  1. On the island Texel in the Dutch province North-Holland, where my parents were from and where I spent a lot of vacations, there is a fort dating from 1574 known as De Schans. It’s basically a low earthwork with some tunnels inside. Pictures, history and description here.

  2. Also shanets and shantsevyi instrument in Russian
    Skansen (the Sconce) is the first open-air museum and zoo in Sweden and is located on the island Djurgården in Stockholm, Sweden.

  3. “In full sconce-piece. An ice floe, a water-washed iceberg.” — associated with the fortification.

  4. tangent: that reminds me to recommend Stephen Pyne’s excellent “The Ice” which discusses congelation ice, frazil ice, ice breccias, grease ice, skeletal ice, anchor ice, infiltration ice, ice paddy, pancake ice, ice schists, ice gneisses, ice slates, bergy bits, brash ice, pack ice, tabular bergs, growlers, ice rinds, ice flowers, vuggy ice, bullet ice and many more.

  5. … and many more

    That’s how many phrases for ice? As compared with the better-known snow.

  6. The OED says it isn’t sure which of these two words sconce the slang term sconce ‘head; wit’ is derived from, so it makes a third entry of it. There is also a fourth distinct entry that is said to be specific to Oxford and perhaps Cambridge: “A fine of a tankard of ale or the like, imposed by undergraduates on one of their number for some breach of customary rule when dining in hall.” What Oxbridge-specific words are doing in the OED when (say) Cornwall-specific words are banished to the EDD is a question. (I’m reading the Poldark books, where tedn’t ‘it isn’t’ is common among dialogue speakers; it’s clearly related by descent or analogy to Southern American idn’t ‘isn’t’.)

  7. What Oxbridge-specific words are doing in the OED when (say) Cornwall-specific words are banished to the EDD is a question.

    A question with a pretty clear answer. (Free the OED from its class-ridden shackles!)

  8. David Marjanović says

    *lightbulb moment* …verschanzt! Though the most common meaning of Schanze these days is “ski jumping hill”.

    Oxbridge-specific words aren’t dialect words, they’re sociolect words…

  9. Schanze may be familiar to some English speakers with an interest in military history from Wolfschanze, the name of Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Actually Wolfsschanze with an originally genitive -s-, but the cluster /sʃ/ does assimilate in pronunciation more often than not.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Depends on the people you associate with.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    I mean that if you have a lot of friends who are actors, and you watch many documentaries on WW2, you will very often hear the didactic, over-precise “Wolfs – schanze” pronunciation. On the street nobody bothers – except for actors on the street.

  13. Trond Engen says

    Any Schanze that the two words are ultimately the same? A Latin word for “hiding” isn’t immediately implausible as the origin of a High German term for “small defensive earthwork or fort”. It’s stranger as the origin of the meaning “ski jump”, but I would assume that to be secondary.

  14. I meant dialect, not dialogue speakers, and the ‘it isn’t’ = ”tisnt’ word is spelled tedn.

  15. Lars (the original one) says

    ODS derives I. Skanse from MLG schantze which also means a faggot (bundle of sticks), on the theory that it first applied to temporary defense walls of that material and only later to earthen works (or fifty million ton rocks like in Stockholm). It might ultimately be related to G schrinden, cf. ODu schrantse.

    (Skanse also means ‘poop deck’ in Danish, and ODS thinks faggot fortifications were first used on ships and the semantic transfer happened in that context).

  16. Skanse also means ‘poop deck’ in Danish

    Shkantsy, sing. shkanets in Russian.

  17. On the other hand, Russian military officialese for pioneers’ tools — spades, pickaxes and the like — still is шанцевый инструмент (shantsevyj instrument).

  18. SFReader says

    Is Wolfschanze well known in wider circles?

    I thought the castle in popular 1990s game was renamed Wolfenstein because Wolfschanze was completely unfamiliar

  19. I don’t know what you mean by “wider circles”; it’s well known to people interested in WWII, but not to the average person on the street.

Speak Your Mind