What does ‘enfilade’ mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: enfilade….

I know when I read a Julian Barnes novel that I’m going to have the bonus of several new words to learn. This was the case with his most recent book I finished, The Only Story. In addition to Belisha Beacon, which I wrote about several weeks ago, I also learned the word enfilade.

Here is how Barnes used it:

The one thing I was not going to do with my existence was end up in suburbia with a tennis wife and 2.4 children, and watch them in turn find their mates at the club, and so on, down some echoing enfilade of mirrors, into an endless, privet-and-laurel future.

Interestingly, the word is both a verb and a noun. As a verb it means to direct a volley of gunfire along the length of a target. And, as a noun, it refers to that same volley of gunfire OR, alternatively, to a suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other.

I could tell from the structure of the word that its origin was French (the -lade ending gave it away.) It comes from the French enfilade, which in turn comes from the Old French enfiler, meaning to thread a needle or to pierce something from end to end. Originally, the word usually referred to rows of apartments or lines of trees before the military meaning came to dominate.

The line from the Barnes novel brought to my mind the Hall of Mirrors, (pictured above), at the Palace of Versailles, where the reflections truly seem endless.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Aug. 1/18.

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