At the evening’s length, as I love to do, I abscond with my laptop into my library and I sit ensconced in my comfiest chair, ready to taste another word. But first: some illumination.
No, I don’t need to turn on a light; they’re already lit. But I need to find a light – a photo of a particular kind of one – to fortify my lexical explorations. And, as it turns out, this entails an exploration of more than a myriad of photos in my Flickr files. For some reason, good pictures of sconces are hard to spot. The sconces are always… well, not hidden, but not necessarily in focus.
But if I am tasting ensconced – and that is my aim – is it truly appropriate to put in pictures of sconces? In one way, I might as well have pictures of scones. You see, ensconced does mean ‘in a sconce’, but the kind of sconce it means I have no pictures of at all, and it has nothing to do with light – other than being a light fortification.
Though you might expect a word like sconce would come only once, there are somehow two kinds of sconce. One is the one you probably have in mind: a wall-mounted candle or lamp, typically with some kind of screen or tube or shade or similar protection (not to say fortification). This comes from Old French ensconse ‘lantern’, from Latin absconsus, past participle of abscondere, ‘hide’ (for the same sense, modern Italian uses nascondere, from inabscondere, which is just in plus abscondere). It is not the case that a sconce must hide the light it holds, however; it only needs to give it shelter.
The other sconce is borrowed from Dutch schans, from German Schanze (possibly but not necessarily deriving from a word meaning ‘basket’), and it means a kind of fortification: a small fort or earthwork for defending a pass or ford, or a castle gate, or to be a counter-fort of a castle – just a shot away, even in range of rolling stones. Also a kind of shelter, therefore, and also a snug one – protection when a storm or flood is threatening, but made for war.
Well. My armchair is not so bellicose. And just as the Dutch word schans was (after the stopping of the fricative) respelled sconce under the influence of the existing words sconce (yes, we’ve had the wall-candle word longer), and just as I’m gradually taking on the shape of this chair, our sense of ensconce – and its most common form, ensconced – has come to be a little more comfy, and the glow of Gemütlichkeit is not so often hidden under a basket. We get shelter so we do not fade away.
Not that ensconced is always so enhanced by happenstance; bad things can be ensconced too: consider “a wasps’ nest ensconced in the hedge-bank,” as Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns describes. But on the other hand, Greg Delanty, “from The Splinters,” demands,
Tell us of the rain
tapping a pane while you’re ensconced
by the fire cradling a pregnant brandy glass.
Deborah Landau, describing “The Wedding Party,” rhapsodizes,
Marie, you are not unclean.
You are rose-oiled and shiny
and ensconced in the corner
with the witty anesthesiologist,
at the café.
It’s a pleasure
just to watch you scratch the crud
off your lotto ticket tonight.
And James Schuyler rounds off “A Man in Blue” with
Where is Brahms?
And Bruno Walter?
Ensconced in resonant plump easy chairs
covered with scuffed brown leather
in a pungent autumn that blends leaf smoke
(sycamore, tobacco, other),
their nobility wound in a finale
like this calico cat
asleep, curled up in a breadbasket,
on a sideboard where the sun falls.
So such things as we can afford come to pass. We need not fire cannons; we can take pot shots via the glowing screens before us. But, as we sit ensconced, we are able to look out on the world and make light of our troubles.
One more usage for SCONCE: At Oxford and Cambridge Universities (and that’s not MS or MA), “a forfeit imposed for a breach of etiquette while drinking”, by extension ‘any forfeit for any minor misdeed’. Usually shouted by one of the drinking party and then taken up as a chorus by the rest. Last heard by the present writer 64 years ago: not a fond memory of the benefits of an Oxbridge education.