Beyond the Build

Construction Trends

The Origin of Construction Terms

The other day, I was thinking about how the web and technology have created new words in our everyday vocabulary. For instance how many times do you say “I’ll Google it?” Ten years ago, no one would have known what you where talking about. In the same vein, “just PDF it to me,” “tweet it,” or “Facebook me.” They’re all a phenomenon of the last decade.

Robbie Cather in our office offered to write a post about some construction words that came about in a similar fashion to Google–seasoned terms that are a sign of the time they came to being. Many thanks to Robbie for providing the text that follows.

Although the terms today are all about technology and precision, there are constant reminders on the jobsite of the origin of craftsmanship – nomenclature that has survived and evolved and is still in use today.

How a few common construction terms came to be:

“Journeyman” comes from an old French term that indicates the right of a person to be paid a wage for a day’s work. European craft workers would travel from village to village to find employment, and some continue this “journey” today.

A “Penny” is a traditional way of sizing nails. Instead of conventional units of measure, guys at the hardware store often refer to nails in pennies. The unit used to refer to how much a hundred of that size nail would cost. One hundred 16 penny nails in the 15th century cost about sixteen pence. Not anymore.

“Inches and feet” are a length of measure which at one point might have been the width of your thumb but evolved into the more standardized length of three grains of barley, end to end.

“Plumb” comes from the Latin word “plumbum,” meaning the element Lead, chemical symbol Pb.

“Plumbing” was formed when the Romans used lead to form water pipes because it is malleable. Today it’s the term we use to reference our piping systems.

 “Checking for plumb” also comes from the Romans, who tied a piece of lead weight to a string to check for vertical alignment and heights and depths of bodies of water.

Around here, we like to think of construction terms on a continuum–ever changing and different among many trades and regions. But try to operate without our mixed bag of terminology? That’s plumb crazy.

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.