Daily Archives: August 11, 2013


Travelling through Toronto today, I saw a large advertisement for 2-storey penthouses in a new building soon to be built. I’ve just had a look at their advertising brochure online. The places are indeed at the top of a building, and undeniably swish with large terraces and high ceilings and so forth. Mind you, three of the five for sale are less than 750 square feet (not counting the terraces), and the other two are in the 1300 and 1400 square foot range. And I’m sure they’re all listing in the seven figures…

The marketing material is all about life at the top and upward mobility. Cute puns, of course, but they sure do play into the image: a penthouse is the diadem at the top of a high building (like the top of the h in the word penthouse), the special space above the rest with luxurious appointments, the quarters to which urban dwellers aspire. A penthouse is a place where you can luxuriate in all you’ve spent, a place where a playboy (hmm, penthouse, playboy) can satisfy his pent-up desires to get into the penties (or whatever) of top models, perhaps on pretext of painting them or photographing them with his Pentax.

It is, in short, the exact opposite of, say, a little sloped-roof shed annex onto the side of a house. The penthouse is no shabby appendix! It is the apex!

This would, of course, be the point where I tell you that penthouse comes originally (by way of Norman French appentice) from Latin appendix, brought into English as pentice and ultimately reanalyzed as penthouse, the pent part being thought of as the (now uncommon) word for a sloped roof. And that it originally referred to a little sloped-roof annex to a building: a shed, a porch, an outhouse.

So how did it get to the top of a building? In the late 1800s, the janitor or caretaker of a sizeable building might have a residence built for him on the roof of the building. So it was an addition to the building, just on the top rather than on the side. From that it came to refer to a residence on the top level of a building. And of course it happens that those residences are normally the most expensive and desirable, thanks to elevators (otherwise the added flights of stairs to walk up and down would make them a bit less appealing). So there we go.

Actually, we don’t go there in my building. Sensibly, the 33-storey building I live in has the exercise room, jacuzzi, and party rooms on the top floor. And the apartments on the 32nd floor have to put up with noise from above! So the best suites are really two floors below the top… and you really can’t call those penthouses, whether or not they have playboys in them.


This evening, my wife and I took the ferry over to Toronto Island and went to a beach near Hanlon’s Point, after which walked over to the Ward’s Island end by way of the boardwalk. We saw a whole lot of bollards.

What’s a bollard? You may not guess correctly from the above sentence. Where would we have seen them? Not on the beach, for one thing. They’re not birds or body parts. We saw them in two places, actually: the ferry docks and the ends of the boardwalk.

A bollard, you see, is a short post. At the ferry docks, they’re the short things that the ropes from the boats are slung onto and tied around. At the ends of the boardwalk, they’re the waist-high posts spaced close enough together to keep the four-person cycles and other largeish vehicles off. (Some of those big cycles got on from a side entrance anyway.) The traffic posts are named after the nautical posts, which in turn are probably named after a bole, which is a tree trunk. Bollards are also called posts, but that’s kinda boring and unspecial, isn’t it?

After all, post doesn’t have two big posts sticking right up in the middle of it (plus another at each end) like you see in bollard. It also doesn’t have that ring of boulevard and bully and blowhard and a few other similar words, plus bothered. And it doesn’t have that ard ending that has a slight smack of French. Post is a shorter and punchier word, but bollard still has an explosive /b/ to start with. And it has two syllables, and it’s a less common word. So of course it must be the better word, right?