Monday, October 6, 2014

Word of the day: hamper

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (1977), I keep a pencil and memo pad at hand to collect words that need looking up, mostly (so far) words from architecture, art, and German. This flurry had me reaching for my pencil: “gables, bell-hampers, well-heads, oriels, and arcades.”

It wasn’t oriel that got me: I already have that one. And a well-head is a structure that covers a well. The puzzle here is bell-hamper. The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for bell-hamper, and nothing for hamper that seems to help. Webster’s Third strikes out. But there’s a relevant definition of hamper at the UK site Looking at Buildings: “In 20th-century and later architecture, a visually distinct topmost storey or storeys.” And via Google Books, an example of the word in use:

[John Newman, The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan (New York: Penguin, 1995).]

Thinking about the hamper as the top storey — or story, in AmE — led me back to the OED which — lo! — has an entry for top-hamper. I had missed that term, cross-referenced in a definition of hamper that I’d thought irrelevant:

Naut. Things which form a necessary part of the equipment of a vessel, but are in the way at certain times.
That meaning of hamper comes, as you might suspect, from the verb hamper. And here’s top-hamper :
a. Naut. Weight or encumbrance aloft: orig. said of the upper masts, sails, and rigging of a ship; later, also, weight or encumbrance on the deck, as in a steamer, ironclad, etc.

b. transf. and fig. An encumbrance on the top or upper part of anything; something that makes it “top-heavy”; the “head-piece.”
And an OED citation, from Samuel Smiles’s Lives of the Engineers (1861):
Though the top-hamper of houses had long been removed, and the piers patched and strengthened at various times, the [London] bridge was becoming every year less and less adapted for accommodating the increasing traffic to and from the City.
The everyday equivalent of the bell-hamper might be the walls that enclose rooftop water towers.

It amuses me that it’s the top or upper sense that explains the architectural hamper. I like the idea of a hamper as a snug enclosure for a bell. Granted, a bell-hamper wouldn’t be made of wicker. The noun hamper itself is made from the noun hanaper “by elision of middle vowel, and assimilation of np to mp, as in ampersand.” A hanaper is “a case for a hanap [“a drinking-vessel, a wine-cup or goblet”] or hanaps; a plate-basket; a repository for treasure or money,” or “a round wicker case or small basket in which documents were kept.”

Do you see how much work went into figuring out hamper? That’s why it is the word of the day.

Related posts
From A Time of Gifts
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s eye

[A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube is the first of three books recounting Leigh Fermor’s journey from the Netherlands to Turkey. The others: Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (1986) and The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos (2013). The first two books have been reissued by New York Review Books.]

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