April is the traditional month for spring cleaning: opening doors wide for the first time in months, polishing things till they gleam, possibly beating on rugs with some kind of stick or club? In honor of this season of good housekeeping, we've asked Jeopardy! mastermind Ken Jennings to help us out with a little mental spring cleaning. He'll be dusting away some persistent around-the-house myths and spraying the sweet-smelling Lysol of Truth over all your remaining brain clutter.
The Debunker: Can One Slide Down the Banister?
Banisters! Or, less commonly, bannisters! The most exciting part of any staircase! The elderly cling to them. The young and sprightly slide down them. Mary Poppins slides up them. Banisters!
But if you want to get really technical and nitpicky about it—and isn't that what this column is all about?—it's impossible to slide down a banister. The word "banister" dates back at least to the 1640s, when it made its debut in English as a mistaken variant of "baluster." Balusters are those molded shafts that support railings on balconies and whatnot. Renaissance noblemen were the first to live in palaces with those classic, bulbous balusters that you're picturing. A row of balusters, whether on a staircase or a sunny terraza, was called a balustrade.
So that was the deal for centuries: a baluster or banister was a vertical support, a railing was the thing that went on top of it, and the whole thing was a balustrade. But by the Victorian era, usage was changing. Uncouth sorts began referring to the whole megillah, handrail and all, as a "banister." Dictionaries scolded readers about this balusterial barbarism, but to no avail. The battle was lost by the 20th century, and today, Merriam-Webster defines a "banister" first as just the handrail, second as the handrail plus the posts, and only as an afterthought does it note that a "banister" can also be just one single post. Sigh. The decline of Western civilization, in one dictionary entry.
So, fine. I guess today you have dictionary support for your misuse of "banister." But be warned! The thing you slide down is, architecturally and historically speaking, a balustrade. Occasionally you might get pushback from a pedant like me who wants your usage, like Mary Poppins herself, to be "practically perfect in every way."
Quick Quiz: Roger Bannister, a London physician, made world headlines in 1954 by doing what, for the first time in recorded history, in less than four minutes?
Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.