Words that delight



The word has had a heady fragrance for two thousand years. More, actually: even before Augustus built his house on the Palatium, the name of that hill had the aura of patricians and opulence.

One might think that the subsumption of the hill’s name into the Emperor’s residence dated from the time of Nero, who after the great fire in 64 so enlarged his house that it seemed to cover the entire hill. After describing the renovation (Bk XV), Tacitus starts Chapter 43, ‘Meanwhile, those parts of Rome that were left over from his residence…’

But no: Ovid was calling Jupiter’s house Palatia sixty years before:
hic locus est, quem, si verbis audacia detur,
haud timeam magni dixisse Palatia caeli.
                               Metamorphoses I.175 – 6

In modern times the word has been joyously appropriated for any building that might contain wealth, luxury, sparkle, spectacle or comfort. There was the Crystal Palace, there were gin palaces, there was the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, and cinemas were sometimes hopefully called picture palaces. There was an impolite but witty limerick about girls who frequented them—who would ‘sit in back rows along with their beaux…’ etcetera. There are Palace theatres, Palace hotels: one of Australia’s most expensive is the Palazzo Versace.

But in the Middle Ages the word was about magnificence, and power, and legitimate rule. The Palatinates of Germany were those regions ruled directly by people answerable to the Pope alone, and they dated from the time of Charlemagne—a man whose very name suggests grandeur, not to mention wistfulness that the word Palatinate has been demoted to the modern Pfalz.

But then Germans have form for such vernacularising: Confluentia became Koblenz. This puts them well into competition with the French, who turned Forum Julii into Fréjus.

Meanwhile in England, the Counties Palatine of Chester, Lancaster and Durham were ruled by earls (or Durham by a bishop) who were deemed to have royal power and who were almost autonomous, being answerable only to the monarch. The legal jurisdiction of these Palatinates, and some of their courts, lasted until the 1870s, and the title of County Palatine is still proudly used by them on occasion.

As irony would have it, Palatium originally means a haunt of shepherds.

Next post: Pilgrimage or peregrination.

*More revisions sheets have been added to the Grammar menu.

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