In History, Music, Words

solar panels

Following last week’s tribute to the late Andy Rourke of The Smiths, there’s an argument that this week’s word should be Turner, or maybe Tina. But I have to admit I’ve been preoccupied by my efforts to become energy self-sufficient. Dynamo though Tina was, and probably well capable of powering the average family home just with that voice, I’ve been looking at more mainstream options.

The first thing that happened was that my gas boiler died (bear with me, this gets more interesting in a minute). These things usually happen in the dead of winter, so I count myself lucky that it waited until spring, even if it was the coldest spring ever. Its demise prompted me to think maybe this is the moment to go ‘gas-free’ and save the planet, so I started looking at electric boilers. They’re more efficient than gas boilers but you pay three times as much for the leckie. Then I read that air source heat pumps are three times as efficient as electric boilers. And then I learnt that they’re fifteen times as expensive to buy. But you can get a five grand grant.

OK, it’s not that interesting.

Anyway, in the midst of all this I did a lot of talking with people about solar panels, which is not an easy conversation. All their efforts to explain to me about ‘kilowatt peak’ and ‘irradiation value’ and ‘optimisers and inverters’ were mere echoes in some distant chamber of my brain compared to the nagging question hammering on my frontal cortex: why is a solar panel called a solar panel in the first place?

“That’s obvious,” I hear you scoff. “It’s a panel that catches the sun.” OK, Einstein, so why are you calling it a panel? Where did you get that word from? Because in my book, albeit a dog-eared old tome dating back to the 14th century, a panel is a piece of cloth. And what’s your panel got to do with the group of people who ban footballers for gambling, or the people who award points on Eurovision despite the fact that the audience is going to vote anyway and render their points pointless?

See, not so straightforward, is it? What you haven’t told me is that we got ‘panel’ from the French, who had it forced on them by the Romans, whose word ‘pannum’ meant a piece of cloth. Not a solar panel. The Romans didn’t have solar panels. They didn’t even have a net zero strategy. So when ‘panel’ came to Britain it was all about cloth, as was its close relation ‘pane’.

That piece of cloth, however, could also be a piece of parchment, and on that parchment lawyers would write the names of people summoned for jury service. Hence the panel became not a piece of cloth but a group of people. That explains the Eurovision bit.

Soon after, it became fashionable for wealthy homeowners to line their walls with decorative cloth panels. It looked nice and boosted their EPC rating. Then, in The Great Age of Learning, when house construction became more sophisticated and clever people discovered that replacing the cloth panes in their windows with glass would keep the wind out and vastly improve the view, cloth wall panels gave way to wooden ones. So now your panel could be any sort of flat sheet object and, to round the circle, you could write the names of your panel on a panel and call it a board. Or a table.

None of which really does justice to the life of Tina Turner. However, we have established why a solar panel shares its name with the pointless judges on Eurovision and now we can move on to deciding which is simply the best way to heat my home without causing steamy windows. Will that do?

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