Walk this way.
Dear Word Detective: Some time ago I came across a wonderful word that meant “spiral staircase.” This may have been in William Golding’s book “The Spire,” but I’m not sure. Now I can’t seem to find it. Can you help me out? — Andrew.
I’ll sure try. But success will depend on you recognizing the word when you see it again, because it turns out that there are a remarkable number of words and phrases in English that are used to mean “spiral staircase.” Who knew, right? I figured there’d be two, three at the most, but there are at least a dozen, which seems a bit excessive.
I’ve never read William Golding’s “The Spire,” but since you’re not sure that’s where you saw the word, I’m not gonna drive myself nuts on the Golding front. Let’s just hunt for some cool words meaning “spiral staircase.” Our old pal the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), as well as our brand-new best friend, the awesome OED Historical Thesaurus, make good places to start.
Searching the Historical Thesaurus for the category “society > inhabiting or dwelling > inhabited place > a building > parts of building > stairs > [noun] > winding or spiral” produces eleven results. The oldest of the terms on the list is “vice,” which today we use to mean a contraption with two jaws that can be opened and closed with a screw mechanism, often used to hold wood or metal being worked on in a machine shop. But “vice” comes from the Latin “vitis” (vine), and originally, around 1334, meant “a spiral or winding staircase” (from the image of a winding vine).
“Vice” doesn’t seem like the kind of word to generate excitement of the sort you describe, and neither do most of the other words on the list (“turnpike” is a bit odd, but also more than a bit boring). Two of the terms, however, might ring that elusive bell. One is “turngrece” or “turngree,” a Scots word formed from “turn” plus “gre,” Old French for “step.” “Turngree” apparently faded from use around 1600, but Golding could well have stumbled across it somewhere.
Another possibility is “cochlea,” which comes from the Latin word for “snail shell.” We use “cochlea” today to mean the spiral-shaped cavity of the human inner ear, but one of its earliest meanings in English (around 1550) was, you guessed it, “spiral staircase.” The same root “cochlea,” with its evocation of a snail’s spiral shell, underlies another term, “cockle stairs” (1624).
Other possibilities include the obsolete “went,” a noun (derived from the verb “to wend”) meaning “a turning or winding of a stair” (1548), “Dutch stairs” and “newel stair” (a “newel” being a supporting pillar of the sort often found in the center of spiral staircases). “Winder” usually refers to the steps themselves in spiral stairs (which are often triangular, as opposed to the rectangular “flyers” of straight stairs), but I suppose “winder” could be also used to mean the whole spiral staircase.
If I had to pick a candidate for “best word for a spiral staircase,” however, I’d go with the beautiful “caracol” (or “caracole”), an 18th century architectural term for a spiral or helical staircase. “Caracol” was imported from the French, which had borrowed it from the Italian “caracollo,” meaning “the wheeling or sudden turning of a horse.” But the root of the Italian word was the Spanish “caracol,” meaning, once again, “spiral shell of a snail or periwinkle” as well as “spiral staircase.”
I think “caracol” is a wonderful word, and I hope I remember it long enough to actually use it in conversation someday. I also hope that one of these words is the word you’re looking for, but if it isn’t, I have a clue for you. I’ll bet the word you’re looking for will turn out to have something to do with snails.