Word of the Month: Ziggurat

David Zapatka

Reader John W. Patterson writes, “For what it’s worth, because of my ever-deepening interest in what might be called “The History of Ideas,” I’ve been following your Word column in our Quail Creek Crossing for some years now. In a very real way, etymology is itself a useful adjunct for dealing with the history of ideas, because the first known appearance of a word roughly marks the point in time when the idea (notion, concept, etc.) denoted by that word finally gained sufficient attention to warrant some amount of public currency. I occasionally used a quincunx (before retiring in 1995) for teaching courses on Statistical Process Control, Design of Experiments, and such, both on campus and off. Were you closer to Quail Creek, I’d be interested in exchanging views related to mathematics. Thanks for doing the column. No response expected.” Many thanks to John. I love hearing feedback on the columns.

While babysitting my three grandsons this past weekend, I had a conversation with 12-year-old Kage, who was telling me about his winning science project at school. He built a ziggurat and showed how a marble would travel through a maze of passages from the top to the bottom.

Ziggurat noun zig·gu·rat | ˈzi-gə-ˌrat: an ancient Mesopotamian temple tower consisting of a lofty pyramidal structure built in successive stages with outside staircases and a shrine at the top: a structure or object of similar form; a tiered tower that is rectangular in shape and occasionally topped by a holy place

Origin and Etymology—Akkadian ziqqurratu

First Used—1874

Ziggurat used in a sentence:

The shape of the ziggurat is very similar to the shape of a pyramid.

At the top of the ziggurat sits a holy place of worship.

Because of a devastating disease, the boy could not walk up the ziggurat to pray.

Ziggurat in the news:

The ziggurat tower-city is finished but ominously quiet.—Jenny Uglow, The New York Review of Books, 21 Oct. 2021

Most dramatic was the ziggurat, which is some 85 feet tall and once stood at least twice as high.—Leon Mccarron, Smithsonian Magazine, 4 Jan. 2022

The concrete ziggurat at 33rd and Tenth Avenue had the look of a place designed to muffle screams from deep inside.—Justin Davidson, Curbed, 30 Sep. 2021

French professor of archaeology, Francois Lenormant, spent a great deal of time poring over ancient Assyrian texts. In those cuneiform inscriptions, he recognized a new language, now known as Akkadian, which proved valuable to the understanding of the ancient civilization. He became familiar with the Akkadian word for the towering temples: ziqqurratu, which was translated into English as ziggurat.

The most famous ziggurat is the “Tower of Babel” mentioned in the Biblical book Genesis. According to the Babylonian epic Enûma êliš, the god Marduk defended other gods against the diabolical monster Tiamat.

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