Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The surprising journey of the paternoster

At the University of Sheffield there is a twenty-storey Arts Tower that dominates the skyline and has been said to sway in strong winds. In order to get students to the many floors in time for lectures the building uses a paternoster, a lift that consists of 38 cars moving on a continuous belt, so that passengers must ascend and alight with just the right timing at their chosen floor.

It is common knowledge at the university that paternoster comes from the Latin for 'Our Father'. Indeed, the Latin 'pater' can be seen as the stem of words such as paternal and paternity, and survives in the Italian and Spanish for father, 'padre'. Yet how such a strange contraption should have been given this name seems at first to be baffling.

However, the entry paternoster in The Chambers Dictionary revealing the word's many applications, structured chronologically to list the uses in the order that each came about, soon sheds light on its interesting derivation. As 'Our Father' are the first words of the Lord's Prayer, so Paternoster became used to refer to the prayer itself. In turn this became applied to the large beads of a rosary that would be clutched with the telling of the Lord's Prayer, and then the rosary itself. Parallels between the structure of the rosary and other items strung in this way led to paternoster being applied to anything constructed like this, such as a fishing-line with hooks at intervals. This, coupled with the continuous movement of the rosary between the fingers during prayer, led to its application to the continuously moving paternoster lift, with its intermittent cars reminiscent of the threaded rosary.

While the paternoster at the University of Sheffield is the tallest in the United Kingdom, others that remain functioning exist at the universities of Essex and Leicester and in a Rolls-Royce building in Derby, as well as in public and private buildings throughout Europe. Yet the perceived health and safety risks and associated accidents mean that the construction of new paternosters is no longer allowed in many countries, and many existing lifts are being taken out of service and covered over. One can simply hope that should use of paternosters decline, the fascinating etymology of their name will not be forgotten.

Deborah Smith

Bookmark this post

If you have any feedback on this entry, please email the author using the form below. They'd love to hear from you!

Your Name :
Your Email :
Subject :
Message :
Image (case-sensitive):