sconce

Definition

Construction

  • A bracket for a candlelight or a similar electric fixture, placed on a wall.

Origin & History of “sconce”

Effectively, English now only has one word sconce in general use, although others have come and gone in the past. That is the noun meaning ‘candlestick’ or ‘wall bracket for a light’ (14th c.). It originally denoted a ‘lantern’ or ‘covered candlestick’, and came via Old French esconse from medieval Latin absconsa. This was short for laterna absconsa, literally ‘hidden lantern’; absconsa was the feminine past participle of Latin abscondere ‘hide’ (source of English abscond (16th c.)), a compound verb formed from the prefix ab- ‘away’ and condere ‘put, stow’. It may be that sconce ‘lantern, lamp’ lay behind the now obsolete slang sconce ‘head’ (16th c.), and there are grounds for believing that this in turn inspired the old university slang term sconce ‘penalty of drinking a large amount of beer for a breach of the rules’ (17th c.) (the underlying notion being of a poll tax or ‘head’ tax). A fourth sconce, now altogether defunct, was a military term for a ‘small fort’ (16th c.). This was borrowed from Dutch schans, which came via middle high German schanze from Italian scanso ‘defence’. This in turn was a derivative of the verb scansare ‘turn aside, ward off’, which was descended from vulgar Latin *excampsāre, a compound verb formed from the prefix ex- ‘out’ and campsāre ‘turn round, sail by’. A memory of the word survives in English, however, in the derived verb ensconce (16th c.) (etymologically ‘hide behind a fortification’).
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