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History Hiding in Plain Sight: The Vergeboard

When we speak and write we use lots of words, often without being aware of what they actually mean or what their origins are.  We also use words as metaphors but don’t pause to consider what their original definitions or meanings might be.  For instance, we use the word “verge” all the time,  such as when we say we are of the verge of something.  I might be on the verge of writing an over-long , boring definition of an architectural term.  You might be on the verge  of reading one of my over-long, architectural definitions.  However, have you ever thought what a verge actually is and why I would be bringing this up on a blog devoted to historic architecture? 

In architecture a verge is the edge projecting over the gable of a roof.  It can also refer to the the projecting tile on the edge of a gable of a roof.  In either case, it is associated with the edge of  a gabled roof.  In a real sense, if you are on a verge, you are on the edge of a roof and might be in danger of falling off.  It is easy to see how the metaphorical sense of verge came about or how the word verge was applied to the edge of a roof.  It does seem that we use the word often in this metaphorical sense without knowing  its original definition. 

A naturalistic, vine-like vergeboard on a Gothic Revival cottage on Fayette, IA. The house originally had a finial above and a pendant below the gable’s peak which have not survived.

I bring this up because I have seen some discussions of vergeboards on social media and I thought it might be fun and interesting to take a quick look at the word.  Vergeboards are the decorative boards that hang from the edges of gables (which we now know are called verges) that are are common on elaborate, Victorian-era houses.   The word bargeboard is also used to describe these ornamental boards.  Although the derivation of the word barge is unclear in this architectural context, it has a similar definition and usage.  A barge stone is a (usually) projecting stone which is used at the top of a masonry gable and a barge course is the coping course of stones or bricks  set on edge at the top of a wall.  Clearly the words verge and barge both are associated with the edge of a roof and this explains how the words were extended to the ornamental boards applied to them.

I have to admit that I am a bit of a geek and like to think about words like these and find out where they came from and how they are used.  It is often the case that there is quite a bit of history and information packed into seemingly simple words and it can be rewarding and informative to take a few minutes and figure out what they really mean.  If you do you will have a richer, more informed understanding of some of the terms and phrases we use very day.  In short, words are fun!       

 

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