Sunday, September 19, 2010

Find the Hidden Galoshes on the U.S. Dollar Bill!

Most of my words-of-the-week tend to be ones normal people would never use, either because these words refer to obscure things or because a more familiar term already exists. However, I occasionally offer words for things that you might encounter on a daily basis but which you did not realize have specific names. Those — the “There’s a word for that?” posts — are probably my favorites. And this is one.
guilloche (gi-LOHSH or GEE-yohsh, with either one rhyming with brioche) — noun: : 1. an architectural ornament formed of two or more interlaced bands with openings containing round devices. 2. a pattern (as on metalwork) made by interlacing curved lines.
It’s that second definition that should be notable to anyone whose exchanged American paper currency for goods or services, as guilloche can refer to that intricate “webbing” pattern that appears in the background of the various dollar notes. (Hat tip to Kottke.) I would have guessed that the second definition referred to mechanical, hand-directed processes, but apparently these designs are today more likely created by feeding mathematical formulas into computers.

Now get lost in some guillocity.

The etymology of guilloche seems to be debated. (It’s one of the first words-of-the-week in a long time to not have an entry at Online Etymology Dictionary.) The American Heritage Dictionary says the term comes from either the French word for the tool used to make this type of ornamentation or from the French guillochis, which, confusingly, seems to mean “guilloche.” This Merriam-Webster etymology gives only guillochis, but a different Webster definition cited by the less reliable traces the history back to Latin: from guillochis to the French guillocher, “to ornament with lines,” to the Old Italian ghiocciare, “to drop or drip” and ultimately to the Latin gutta, “a drop.” Wikipedia’s article on guilloche (or, rather, guilloché) claims the term comes from a French engraver Guillot, who invented the technique. Finally, — which isn’t exactly trustworthy — reports the Collins Dictionary — which I’ve never heard of before — states that guilloche could trace back to the French name Guillaume, “William.” So make of that what you will.

Fun fact: Have you ever tried to scan a dollar bill? Oh, the fun little threatening messages you get when you do that. Also: “Encyclopedia Drew and the Case of the Mixed-Up Currency”and the purported history of the U.S. dollar sign.

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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