Palatial or cramped? (Words to describe buildings and rooms, part 1)


by Kate Woodford

This week we’re looking at the words we use to describe buildings and rooms. Since there are lots of useful words, the post will be in two parts.

A lot of building adjectives relate to size, though of course, most have additional meanings. A spacious building or room is large, with (as you might imagine) lots of space: Their offices are very modern and spacious. An imposing building is large and also looks important and impressive: The bank is in an imposing building, overlooking Central Park.

The adjective grand also describes large, impressive buildings (usually old ones), and has the additional meaning of ‘expensive-looking’: The main road into town is lined with rather grand Victorian houses. A building that is splendid or magnificent, meanwhile, is also large and expensive-looking and in addition, is very decorative: There are two splendid medieval palaces in the centre. / Don’t forget to visit the magnificent opera house.

The word palatial means ‘like a palace’, so describes an extremely large and expensive-looking building: It’s home to the painter’s 17th-century palatial mansion.

A rambling house is very large and spreads out in many directions. (This adjective usually describes an old house.): They lived in a rambling old house in the Sussex countryside.

There are fewer words associated specifically with small buildings. The adjective modest describes a house that is not especially large or expensive-looking: Despite her wealth, she still lives in the modest semi-detached house she bought twenty years ago.

Cramped describes a place that is too small so the people in it are not comfortable: There were eight of us sharing this cramped little office. To express how small a place is, people sometimes say informally there isn’t enough room to swing a cat: You’re certainly not going to fit another bed in here. There isn’t enough room to swing a cat!

Other adjectives used about small places are more positive: Cosy is a common word used for a comfortable and warm little house or room: a cosy little room Less common than ‘cosy’ but with the same meaning is the adjective snug: How she wished she was back in her snug little cottage. In UK English, you sometimes hear the adjective bijou used to describe a place that is attractively small and often expensive-looking: Most of these houses have been converted into bijou apartments.

In the second of these posts, we’ll focus on words for the state of a building and also take a look inside, with a round-up of words that describe how a place is furnished and decorated.

14 thoughts on “Palatial or cramped? (Words to describe buildings and rooms, part 1)

  1. Excellent! All the adjectives in the post are eminently useful and familiar to most people. But I haven’t known the last word “bijou” and it doesn’t have an English look. Now that the meaning is given, I can use it as part of my active vocabulary and can guess its meaning when I meet it next time round.. I know Kate Woodford is Commissioning Editor of Cambridge Advanced Dictionary with a CD-ROM. I consult it at least three or four times a day. Thanks…

    1. André

      I think that it comes from the Russian verb ” to see “. ( я вижу – I see )
      It also looks like the French word ” bijouterie “

      1. Denis

        The word ‘bijou’ is French, from Breton bizou ‘finger ring’, from biz ‘finger’.
        Bijou (the noun can be pluralized as either bijoux or bijous) has adorned English since the late 17th century. It was borrowed from French, but the word ultimately traces to Breton, a Celtic language (one closely related to Cornish and Welsh) spoken by inhabitants of the Brittany region of northwest France. The modern English word derives from Breton bizou, which means ‘ring’. That history makes bijou a rare gem in English because, although the Breton people occupied part of England for many years before they were pushed into France by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries, very few Breton-derived words remain in the English language. (Another Breton descendant is menhir, a term for a kind of monolith.)

    2. Kate Woodford

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m very pleased to hear you found the post useful.Best wishes from Cambridge.

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