• catafalque •
Pronunciation: kæt-ê-fawlk • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A bier, a decorated platform on which a coffin rests in a funeral.
Notes: The first thing we note about today's Good Word is that it ends on -que that is pronounced [k]. This is how we know that today's word was a recent borrowing from French, since a final -que on French words is always pronounced [k]. The next thing of note is the US pronunciation of T between vowels: it often comes out [d]: kæd- ê-fawlk.
In Play: The Lincoln catafalque, built in 1865 to support the casket of Abraham Lincoln, has since been used for all those who have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Catafalques are not something easy to joke about, but in Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot wrote, "'If you have laid out what we want, go and see to the others, Bugle,' Gwendolyn had said, when she and Mrs. Danilow entered their black and yellow bedroom, where a pretty little white couch was prepared by the side of a black and yellow catafalque, known as 'the best bed'"—apparently a reference to the comfort of Elizabethan beds.
Word History: Today's good word is a tracing of the spelling and meaning of French catafalque, from Italian catafalco "scaffold", from Vulgar Latin catafalicum. This word is believed to have originated with Greek kata- "down, lower" + fala "scaffolding, wooden siege tower", a word thought to be of Etruscan origin. The same Medieval Latin word also yielded Old French chaffaut, Modern French échafaud "scaffold". Scaffold itself comes from this French word at a different stage of development. Scaffold is a shortening of the late Old French form eschafaut "scaffold". The shift of [l] to [u] is common in many Indo-European languages, including English: in some dialects of English milk is pronounced [miuk], hill, [hiu], including right here in Pennsylvania. (It is difficult for me to confess that I am less adept than George Eliot at using catafalque humorously, so let's just thank Barbara Kelly for submitting today's Good Word.)