Imbricate: v.

Updated: Nov 27, 2018

Joe Grimwade

Imagine: you’re standing at the local bus stop when a man sporting a toga and a proud aquiline nose appears beside you. It begins to rain. The man, understandably annoyed at the puddle forming around his sandals, voices his frustration: “Why, by Apollo Imbricitor, can’t the council provide a little imbrication for this stop?” You deduce that all this togatus desires is protection from the imber, and so offer him your umbrella.

Imbricate: v. ‘to overlap in a regular repeating pattern’

Indeed, to draw the rain, imber, from their roofs, the Romans designed the imbrex, a hollow gutter-tile. Imbrices were arranged in an overlapping formation with flat tiles, tegulae, to create the rainproof roof covering (shown in the photo) so distinctive of many Roman and Greek buildings. From imbrex was derived the verb imbricare, ‘to shape like a gutter-tile’, which Pliny the Elder used to describe the shape of certain insects’ vertebrae (Plin. HN 11.1.1). Nero, if you believe Suetonius, even had a group of young men greet his singing with a special kind of imbrex-applause – maybe the sound mimicked that of rain on rooftiles (Suet. Ner. 20).

Roman rooftiles, Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga, Portgual. Photo courtesy of E. Sanderson.

The word ‘imbricate’ came to be used as both a verb and an adjective in the English language with its modern meaning from the second half of the seventeenth century. If a series of items are ‘imbricate’, the implication remains that they overlap in a way not dissimilar to Roman rooftiles. The noun ‘imbrication’ is also used today in surgical medicine to refer to overlapping layers of tissue, and in geology, where it describes a sedimentary deposit in which rock fragments are fused in an overlapping structure.

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