A Wordorigins thread introduced me to an interesting word with a disputed etymology, sharawaggi (with g pronounced like j). The OED does not try to define it, sending the reader instead to the first citation, from 1685: SIR W. TEMPLE Gard. Epicurus Misc. II. ii. (1690) 58 “The Chineses.. have a particular Word to express it [sc. the beauty of studied irregularity]; and where they find it hit their Eye at first sight, they say the Sharawadgi is fine or is admirable.” As you can see, Temple spoke of the word as Chinese, but the OED’s etymologists, while throwing up their hands, cast doubt on that: “Of unknown origin; Chinese scholars agree that it cannot belong to that language. Temple speaks as if he had himself heard it from travellers.” In the latest edition they add: “For a discussion of etymological hypotheses see 1949 Archit. Rev. CVI. 391/2.” I don’t have access to that number of the Architectural review (if anyone does, I’d appreciate hearing from them), but in the Wordorigins thread Douglas Wilson linked to an article, “A Borrowed Vista” by Ciaran Murray (HTML version of a pdf of issue 27 of the Kyoto International Cultural Association newsletter) that provides a very plausible theory:

There have been a number of attempts to fit Chinese characters – kanji – to this word, but none of them sounds close to sharawadgi, and none of them means what Temple meant. However, an English teacher who lived in Japan 70 years ago, a man called E.V. Gatenby, suggested that sharawadgi was a Japanese word. He thought it might be the older form of sorowanai desho – that the two halves of a design did not match. This form was sorowaji.

That’s all he said. He was tracing words of Japanese origin for the Oxford English Dictionary, and he never took the matter any further. When I tried to do so, I immediately ran into trouble. Historians of the Japanese language told me that the form sorowaji died out four hundred years ago. Temple wrote a hundred years later. So how could he have heard a word which was no longer in use?

Now I was like the character in the Arabian Nights who cannot remember the phrase ‘open, sesame’ which will disclose a door in the rock and give him access to a treasure inside. I could sense the treasure inside, but the phrase I had didn’t seem to be working. I puzzled over this for a long time, until at last a friend who taught at Tokyo University introduced me to Professor Kanai Madoka. Professor Kanai was involved in copying the documents of Dejima, which are still kept in the Netherlands, and bringing a set to Japan. And he was the one who supplied my ‘open, sesame’.

Professor Kanai told me that yes, it was true that sorowaji had died out four hundred years ago – but only in standard Japanese. It had stayed alive in the dialect of Kyushu. Now if you try to pronounce sorowaji in kyushu-ben, what do you get? Shorowaji. And if you try to pronounce shorowaji in Dutch, you get what Temple got – sharawaji. And Temple, you remember, was ambassador to Holland.

Now, I have no idea if any of the Japanese is accurate, but if it is, I’d say the etymology is pretty well nailed down (though the Dutch bit seems dubious). And the next time you see an image with a pleasing asymmetry, you can say “Ah, what shawaraggi!”

2009 Addendum. David Paquette of writes to tell me that

sharawadji is included in the list of sonic effects proposed by Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue in their book Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005). They define it (and I quote) as “An aesthetic effect that characterizes the feeling of plenitude that is sometimes created by the contemplation of a sound motif or a complex soundscape of inexplicable beauty.” They attribute the term to 17th century travelers returning from China, and they also mention Wiliam Temple, as well as an article by Louis Marin, “L’effet sharawadji”, in Traverses no. 4-5, Paris (1979). So the term is now also used to refer to sonic sources – the authors of the book also being architects, I would assume they found the term in their literature and applied it to sound.

Thanks, David!


  1. i’ve been trying to revive that term as an aesthetic term for a mixture of opposites (e.g. curviangular, abstract/figurative, ktp)–which we don’t already have a word for–, but i spell it “sharawadji”.

  2. That’s certainly a better way to spell it, since it clearly indicates the pronunciation; I wish you well with your revival effort!

  3. It seems to me it sounds more like a Japanese than a Chinese aesthetic desideratum.

  4. Ooo, I saw a Disney character sheet once that demonstrated that when you draw a character, you should make the pose asymmetric (turn the head a bit, have the arms and legs in slightly different positions, maybe make a gesture with one arm, etc.) It pointed out that a perfectly symmetric pose looks unnatural and lifeless.
    So animators use sharawaggi too, even if they don’t know it by that name!

  5. see Stephen Gwynn, “The Life of Horace Walpole”. He quotes from a Walpole Letter to Mann about the style of Strawberry Hill, saying that Grecian is not an appropriate design for a private home;
    “The variety is little, and admits no charming
    irregularities. I am almost as fond of the
    Sharawaggi, or Chinese want of symmetry, in
    buildings, as in grounds or gardens.”
    This is Walpole’s defense for his choice of the Gothic.
    Of course, the quote is no help at all in a search for “origins” but I think it a nice example of “Sharwaggi’s” use in the 18th century.

  6. A note on “sharawaggi” in The Architectural Review (UK), 1949.
    AR editor Hugh de Cronin Hastings used the term in the context of his manifesto or proposal for a new way of thinking about architecture and the built environment, in contrast to the predominant organic/romantic and functionalist approaches. His “Townscape” philosophy (or what might be called “Cityscape” philosophy in American English because of the British predilection to use ‘town’ when Americans would use ‘city’) was a historic but underestimated (perhaps because of that town/city confusion) contribution to thinking about cities. Hastings borrowed the term from English garden and landscape theory, citing Uvedale Price’s Essay on the Picturesque (1794). In spite of the merits of the idea, its association with picturesqueness, a much debated aesthetic concept, closed many minds to not just his urban theory but ostensibly to the term ‘shagwaggi’ itself.

  7. P.S. An edited version of Hasting’s [aka Ivor de Wolfe’s] essay can be found in Joan Ockman’s anthology, Architecture Culture 1943-68, Rizzoli (1993).
    Peter Laurence
    Ph.D. Program in Architecture
    University of Pennsylvania

  8. Trond Engen says

    Andrea Sciaravaggio (1532-1581) was a lesser Italian Renaissance architect. It’s not clear if the term was coined after him for the strong squinting of his left eye or for the fact that he was never able to design the rigidly symmetrical buildings that were high fashion in his time — or if the two facts were connected.

  9. Only ghit for “Andrea Sciaravaggio”. Fortunately.

  10. Trond Engen says

    No, it’s sad. The Renaissance would have been far less boring if someone like him had been commissioned for the important buildings.

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