What do the words nipple, flashing, chase and butt have in common?

That’s right — they’re all parts of a building.

Having gotten used to casually tossing off the many quirky terms found in building construction, I’m sometimes caught short by the sidelong glances of my clients, who aren’t always sure what kind of anatomy I’m invoking.

I suspect that most of these terms harken from Middle Ages-era builders who, like their modern counterparts, delighted in coining colorful or even risqué expressions for otherwise mundane parts of buildings. Contractor humor, it seems, has changed little over the centuries.

Be that as it may, let me explain the above words before I move on to a couple of other favorites.

  • A nipple, as any plumber can tell you, is a very short length of threaded pipe. Back in the days when water pipes were threaded, plumbers had to make up all the long lengths on the job, but a range of nipples — short pieces in one-inch increments up to one foot — were pre-threaded and kept on hand to save time.
  • Flashing — which is a noun, not a verb — is a kind of sheet metal fabrication that’s used for waterproofing, typically where wall and roofs intersect. This word is just a shortened version of the original term, "flashing metal," which better explains its origin: on a slate or tile roof, these pieces of metal were literally the only part that flashed in the sun.
  • A chase is a vertical shaft, usually continuous through stories, in which pipes, ducts and the like are run. This kind of chase isn’t rooted in the more common word meaning "hunt"; rather, it comes from an Old French word meaning groove or enclosure.
  • Butt — a shortened form of "butt hinge" — is builder’s lingo for the type of hinge typically used on a residential door. Curiously, butts are always counted like pants — in pairs. Hence, a door with a hinge at the top and bottom is said to have a pair of butts, while one with three hinges is said to have one and a half pairs.

And while we’re on some of the more arcane building terms, here are a few more:

  • A rabbet is a groove or recess running the length of a piece of lumber. It has nothing to do with the name of the like-sounding animal, but rather is just the woodworker’s corruption of "rebate," an old architectural term with nearly the same meaning. The exact same groove made perpendicular to the grain rather than parallel to it, however, is inexplicably called a "dado."
  • In construction, to "furr" — yes, it has two Rs — means to apply false framing over a wall or ceiling, usually to hide something unsightly beneath. The word comes from the Old French "fourrer," which has the delightful meaning of "to trim or line with fur."
  • A "sleeper" is one of a series of wooden strips laid down over subflooring in order to increase its height. Since this piece of lumber doesn’t have to do much of anything but lay there, its 13-century meaning seems wryly appropriate: "One who is inclined to sleep much."
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