And even a little more on luna

The past few entries have dealt with words that come from Latin luna ‘moon.’ The French development of luna is lune, whose diminutive, lunette, has passed into English in several senses that involve something with a crescent or semicircular shape. As the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica noted, “the term is particularly applied in architecture to a circular opening at the intersection of vaulting by a smaller vault, as in a ceiling for the entrance of light or in the lower stories of towers for the passage of bells. It is also used of a panel space of semi-circular shape, filled by a fresco or other decorative treatment.” In geology, a lunette is ‘a low, crescent-shaped mound formed by the wind.’ One definition that sounds funny to us but was apparently still a serious matter for people a century ago is, to quote the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, ‘a piece of felt to cover the eye of a vicious horse.’

Spanish has also borrowed French lunette, transforming it to luneta. The French plural lunettes means ‘eyeglasses,’ based on the shape of the lenses used, and one sense of Spanish luneta is ‘each of the lenses used in a pair of eyeglasses.’ Also based on a crescent shape, Spanish luneta means ‘each of the curving rows of luxury seats in a theater right in front of the orchestra pit.’ More generally, luneta refers to ‘the area filled with seats on the main level of a theater, as opposed both to any sections set aside for standees and to the seats in the balcony.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Feb 21, 2016 @ 22:06:53

    I ran into lunette tonight while studying up on Spanish colonial architecture. It’s funny to find it here.

    I actually came looking for information on ceiling. I was writing it tonight, and suddenly didn’t know how to spell it. When I reversed the vowels, I saw the French word for sky — ciel — and wondered: is this one of those instances where vowels have changed places? I get that any association would be a loose one, but I did read that ceiling probably was influenced by the Latin caelum. Whatever the answer, it was a fun little experience to be so quickly plunged from one language into another.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 22, 2016 @ 11:35:07

      When I studied French I wondered the same thing about ceiling. It apparently isn’t related to ciel but comes from a different Old French word:

      When I lived in Honduras, movie theaters offered a choice of sitting in the palco (balcony, more expensive) or the luneta (main level). I looked up that term just now and found that in olden times it referred to the closest rows to the stage, which presumably formed an approximate crescent moon shape.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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