Windows are not always paneful

By a strange coincidence I have a couple of new clients in the window business. One sells double-glazed modern windows and the other is a joiner who makes traditional timber windows. I have been writing and talking about windows a lot this week, so it must be time to look at the word.

A window is a hole in a wall that allows light in. Unfortunately it also lets in the wind, which in England and the north of Europe is rather unpleasant. Our word, window, originates from Scandinavia, from the Old Norse vindauga from vindr for wind and auga for eye, hence wind eye (the Welsh have gwyntdor, literally wind-door).

In English, window is first recorded in the early 13th century. It originally referred to an unglazed hole in the roof—the first skylights (in modern Swedish the word vindöga remains the word for a hole through the roof of a hut). The word replaced the Old English word, eagþyrl, which literally means eye-hole and eagduru meaning eye-door.

In their attempts to keep out the wind our forebears used a range of materials to seal the hole from the weather but still allow light in. Wooden shutters were sort of a solution but had to be open to let the light in. Animal skins, soaked in oil to make them translucent, were stretched across the holes (much like a drum skin). Pieces of flattened animal horn was another solution. In China they used paper.

However, about 100 AD the Romans in Alexandria in Eygpt started to use glass in windows. It was translucent and, because it was made by glass blowers in the same way as bottles, could only be manufactured in small panes (pane is originally from Latin pannum for a piece of cloth).

Glass production became widespread during the mediaeval period, particularly in churches. Inevitably English picked up fenester from the church Latin. Fenester comes from the Latin word, fenestra, for window, which is thought to have originated from Etruscan.

Fenester fell out of use in English a few hundred years ago but fenestration is still used to describe how windows are arranged on a building and defenestration (one of my favourite words) for throwing something out of a window (it was coined to describe several incidents in Prague of people being thrown out of windows, some with fatal consequences).