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Sunday, 31 January 2016

A tale of lattice

A trellis is usually taken to be a light framework of wooden or timber bars, fastened where they cross, producing a screenwork of square or diamond-shaped gaps, generally filling a window or door space, and it gets its name from the trilicium, a Latin term for a warp thread made of three separate threads. Variant forms of this word are found in Middle English and Old French, but these days, people are more likely to speak of a lattice.

This is much the same thing as a trellis, but made from a thin wooden strap, a lath. This comes from the Old English lætte, through the Middle English laþþe, a word that was still in use in Shakespeare's time, when Falstaff declares to Prince Hal that he will "beat thee out of thy kingdom with a dagger of lath" in Henry IV Part 1, and it is a word which may still be heard in the expression 'lath and plaster'.

There is a similar word in German, laden, meaning a counter or shop, probably derived from the sense of lath as a plank, used to make a counter in a market place, but ladders were never made from lath, and even though ladders were often used in a barn, they have nothing to do with what Chaucer called variously a lath and a lathe, meaning a barn.This name comes from the Old Norse word hlaða, which is also seen in the rare verb 'lade', meaning load, and still seen in the past participle, 'laden'.

In times gone by, Kent was divided into a number of lathes, each with a lathe reeve, a bit like the shire reeve who gave us our modern sheriff, but what of the lathe that we use to turn wood and metal? The standard explanation ties this to the hlaða and 'lade', on the basis that this is similar to the Danish 'lad', a stand, seen in compounds such as savelad, a saw-bench, and væverlad, a loom (think /weaver-stand' to get the feel for this one).

Along this line of reasoning, the 'lad' is a pile built up in a regular way to make a stand, and so the lathe was a turning-lathe or turning-stand, and so became just a lathe. The fact that this is a little improbable has been happily ignored by etymologists in the past. It is just possible, though, that etymologists are less interested in technology than in words, and may have missed another possibility.

While we now use electric power, and before that, people used steam or even water-power to drive a lathe, in the middle ages, a lathe used a long and whippy arm over the bench, a treadle below, and a strap that went around the timber being worked. As the treadle went down, bending the boom, the strap made the timber piece turn.

Then when the treadle was released, the strap spun the timber in the opposite direction. Now the bending part of an arbalest or crossbow is called a lath, and it is just possible that our modern lathe was once a turning-lath, instead, or maybe the two ideas got mixed up.

One major use of lattice in the past was to make chancels, screens used to separate officiating clergy from the masses, or a court from the general public. The chancel, and what lay beyond, would be guarded by a chancellor, who was basically just an usher at the bars (chancelli) of a court.

But while constables were coming down in the world, the fortune of chancellors was on the rise, and soon they were Lord Chancellors, lording it over just about everybody, controlling whole universities, and even having courts of their own, the Chancery courts that Dickens depicts so lovingly in Bleak House.

These courts were every bit as awful in their behaviour as Dickens describes them, so that pugilists used the expression 'in chancery' to describe a fighter who had his opponent in a headlock, while beating him in the face with his spare fist. It would be enough to get you in a lather, but that, it seems, is an unrelated word.

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