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Pronounced /məˌtʃɪkəˈleɪʃn/Help with pronunciation

When the world was younger, the principal defence against attackers was the castle, so effective before the age of gunnery that the only way to subdue it was to undermine its walls. To stop the enemy doing this, defenders evolved several techniques, one of which was to build out structures from the tops of the walls with openings in their floors so that stones, boiling oil or other deterrents could be dropped on those below.

At first these structures were of wood (called hoardings) but they were later reconstructed in stone, most commonly over the particularly vulnerable gatehouses but in some cases all along the walls. These were the machicolations. A modern reference:

With its huge, menacing tower, watchbox, and multiple tiers of battlements (replete with arrow loops and machicolations concentrated over entrances), the building is fiercely defensive in look and capability, and it could as easily -- perhaps more easily -- be called a fortress.

The Renaissance Quarterly, Dec. 1999. The author is describing the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

The word came from the Old French machicolor, a compound of Provençal macar, “crush”, and col, “neck”, a graphic description of the result of being bombarded with stones from on high while you were trying to dig.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Mar. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-mac1.htm
Last modified: 7 March 1998.