Picture an attic.
What do you see, what do you envision with the eye high inside your head? I suspect it is the space underneath the roof angle of an American-style wooden house. The roof makes a triangle with the floor; windows may project in dormers or gables, and there may be a window at the end. It is all wood. It is dusty. There may be a bed up there (but let me tell you, I sure don’t want to sleep in it), or there may just be boxes and old furniture and toys. (Yes, there are always toys in the attic. Ask Lillian Hellman, who wrote the play of that name.) There is always dust. And the floor is wooden. It creaks. The sound of a floorboard as you step on it is something reminiscent of the sound of “attic”: dry as dust, as dead memories, as desiccated childhood. It all seems like a setting for a short story by Stephen King.
Would you expect an attic to be made of stone? To have rectilinear walls and ceiling? To have classical columns? Perhaps even a cupola? Imagine a person building a stone house with classical columns on that truncated top storey, and calling it an attic. It would almost seem like a bit of architectural Attic salt.
Well, there would be an erudite pun in there, anyway, whether or not it would qualify as refined wit (that’s what Attic salt means, for the most of us who never use the term). People who study things classical or look at antiquities in museums may have noticed that Attic is used to refer to things from or pertaining to Athens and region. What is the region of Athens? Attica – Greek Ἀττική (Attiké).
It’s funny, isn’t it, that on the one hand Attic seems so classical and ancient, while on the other hand attic seems just old and dusty and spooky? (I’m not kidding about not liking to sleep in attics, by the way. Makes my flesh crawl.) How did those two words manage to have the same form?
Because, of course, they’re the same word. The attic that has all your heirlooms in it has one more than you think: the word attic. While you’re busy dusting off old potboiler paintings and chipped chamber-pots to take to Antiques Roadshow, you have a genuine piece of ancient classical history that you didn’t even know about. Pity you can’t sell it.
Here’s what it is: You may think that there are three orders of classical columns, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. (Or you may not even know what I’m talking about.) This is basically true, but there is also a thing called the Attic order: a square column of one of the aforementioned orders. And in the area around Athens, buildings were often built with a small upper storey fronted with pilasters of the Attic order. So a short storey crowning a building – even just a cupola – is the Attic storey.
Boy, that’s come a long way, hasn’t it?
But there is still something making it more fitting to call those triangular high parts of houses attics. Attica, you see, is a triangular projection of the Greek mainland – a peninsula. Its name comes from ἀκτή akté, which means ‘raised place’.
So a triangular raised place. And an old and dusty one at that. And full of history.