It is summer, and that means it’s time for sipping iced drinks out on the porch while… wait, is it a porch? Maybe it’s a deck. A lanai? Maybe a veranda.
When I wrote my second vignette from a white sand beach, the one about the woman sweeping her walk, I originally wrote, “I sip coffee on the porch while my family sleeps in.” After a few reads, I realized that wasn’t quite accurate. I witnessed the scene from above, from the second floor, but the word “porch” suggested that I was on ground level. After a few rounds of adding descriptive sentences to give the reader the impression of height, to indicate a bird’s eye view, I sighed in frustration that I was gunking up the piece with too many extra words. Then I looked at “porch” and realized I only needed to make one change. I swapped “porch” with “balcony” and was finally able to move on.
That small change reminded me that though I grew up in a world in which outdoor seating areas are as important as living rooms, I never know the right word to use for each one. Did we rock on Grandaddy and Nannie’s front porch, or was that a veranda? When we sat in cushioned wicker furniture and ate peanuts from a crystal bowl on a glass-topped coffee table at Grandma and Grandpa’s, was that a screened porch or something else? Why was my parents’ screened area in Georgia called a screened-in porch, but when we moved to Florida everyone’s screened porch was called a lanai? Is a deck the same as a patio? Is “porch” an umbrella word that covers veranda, lanai, patio, and deck? Or does a porch have certain specifications – a railing, perhaps, or a cover?
Well, folks, I decided to find out. Here’s a primer* on balconies, porches, and patios.
balcony – 1. A platform that projects from the wall of a building and is surrounded by a railing, balustrade, or parapet. [from Old Italian balcone meaning scaffold]
courtyard – An open space surrounded by walls or buildings and adjoining or within a building.
deck – 2. a. A platform or surface likened to a ship’s deck. 2. b. A roofless floored area that adjoins a house.
lanai – 1. A Hawaiian word for veranda. 2. A veranda or roofed patio, especially a fully furnished one used as a living room. (so it doesn’t have to have a screen!)
patio – 1. An outdoor space for dining or recreation that adjoins a residence and is often paved. 2. A roofless inner courtyard, typically found in Spanish and Spanish-style dwellings. [from Old Provençal patu, pati meaning pasture or Latin patere, to lie open]
porch – 1. A covered platform, usu. having a separate roof, at an entrance to a building. (a porch does have a cover!) 2. An open or enclosed gallery or room attached to the outside of a building; a veranda. [from Latin porticus ‘entrance hall,’ and before that porta meaning ‘gate’]
portico – A porch or walkway with a roof supported by columns, often leading to the entrance of a building [from Latin porta meaning ‘gate’]
veranda – A porch or balcony, usu. roofed and often partly enclosed, extending along the outside of a building. Also called regionally gallery. [Hindi varanda, and before that Persian bar amadah, meaning coming out]
So it turns out that “porch” is not an umbrella word that covers all of these. Based on the etymology of the word, a porch is necessarily attached to an entrance, and its origins lie in the fact that a porch provides shelter at a doorway. Similarly, the etymology of veranda suggests that a veranda is also attached to an entrance. It seems that veranda and porch can be used interchangeably, though veranda seems to suggest extension along the side of a building while a porch can either extend or occur solely at the doorway. Verandas and porches do not require railings, but balconies do.
As for where we rocked at Nannie and Grandaddy’s and watched fireflies, the red planked area was roofed, attached to an entrance, had a railing, wrapped around the house, and was raised off the ground, so it would be accurate to call it a porch, a veranda, or a balcony. At Grandma and Grandpa’s, where we admired coastal Georgia sand dunes from the comfort of a fully furnished screened porch, if we wanted to get exotic (they did live on an island, after all), we could say we sat and ate peanuts on their lanai. Although, in my research, I found that lanais are generally floored like a patio, in the sense that they are tiled or paved, and Grandma and Grandpa’s porch floor was planked. Also, lanai tends to be used in more tropical climates, which explains its popularity in Florida, so maybe Grandma and Grandpa’s was more accurately a screened-in porch or veranda.
And finally, patios. Though patios are related to courtyards, the difference is that a patio does not have to be surrounded by walls or buildings, whereas a courtyard does. The difference between a deck and a patio is that a deck is floored, usually with wooden planks, like a ship’s deck, while a patio is paved with cement, brick, or stone pavers, like a courtyard. Additionally, a patio will be laid directly on the ground, while a deck will be slightly raised as it requires some sort of support. Neither is covered, which differentiates them from porches and verandas, and a patio can be either connected to the house or separate from it while a deck is generally attached.
So there you go. Now I’m going to go out back to sweep our brick patio and dream about the adirondack chairs my husband is going to build for our wooden deck.
*Definitions from 1993 The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition
6 thoughts on “Balconies, porches, and patios – a primer on the language of outdoor seating”
Verandas and lanai are way to grand and exotic to exist in the low country 😉
Art History lesson for the day: In doing extensive reading about old churches and cathedrals, I have learned that they all have porches (well, mostly all anyway.) The porch was often where poor travelers and pilgrims would lodge. They were highly decorated with sculptures to relate religious stories to the illiterate visitors
I always associate verandas with plantation houses, so yes, way too grand for the likes of us.
Thanks for the lesson! I could never tell the difference, and we have all types of outdoor seating here in the tropical country! I’m going to change a “porch” to a “deck” in one of my blog posts now! 🙂
You know what I like about your writing? You make me homesick for the places you write about, yet I’ve never been to any of them.
We did have a balcony and two porches on the house I grew up in though.
You have no idea how much your comment means to me. I read fiction for the exact connection to place that you describe. I am thrilled that you experience that nostalgia when you read my writing. Thank you so much for telling me that.
Also, I’m going to follow your house-cleaning tip with my older boy, see if it works. He’s good with dusting, but I think we can expand on that a little.
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