On Charles Lamb’s Ear

· Charles Lamb calls his ear a ‘handsome volute on the human capital’, a phrase that deserves savouring for both its etymological and architectural humour.

· First the etymological: the word ‘capital’ comes from ‘caput’, Latin for ‘head’. This is the origin of terms like ‘per capita’, ‘captain’ (the head of a team), capital punishment, and ‘decapitate’ (behead). Indeed, even ‘capitalism’ traces its origin to labour, in the sense of ‘heads’ of workers.

· The word ‘volute’ gives us terms like ‘revolve’ in the sense of spiralling or turning around, and even ‘voluble’ which means ‘talkative’, that is, having a tongue that rolls readily. Hence, Lamb describes his ear as a spiral-like feature placed on his head.

· Now, the architectural sense: capitals were the broadened portions of masonry introduced at the tops of columns, just below the ceiling, to minimize stress concentrations at the junction of the beams and the columns themselves. Classical architects spoke of Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian capitals. Volutes were the spirals placed on these capitals for symbolic purposes and as ornament.

· The dual meaning of Lamb’s phrase is now clear.

· He proceeds to call them (his ears, that is) as ‘side-intelligencers’, but that’s a write-up for another day…



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