My daughter gave me this gargoyle curio box for Christmas one year. Don't you love it?
The word Gargoyle actually comes from an Old French word: gargouille, meaning "throat" (I think that's the correct spelling... my Old French is a bit rusty). The word is also the root for words like gargle and gurgle. The origin becomes more clear if you understand that a true gargoyle is actually a spout on the eaves of a building designed to channel water away so that the mortar isn't eroded over time (basically an early gutter system). If you look at the gargoyles on old buildings, they have an open mouth where water would flow out when it rained. Look here and you'll see what I mean. (The statue Wayne is standing with is a true gargoyle... see how the water would channel along its back and then flow out the mouth?)
Here's a whole gaggle of gargoyles I found on Flickr (along with credit to their photogs... a very talented lot... be sure to visit their Flickr photostreams and see some more of their amazing work)
1. tarragona, 2. CATHEDRAL GOYLE, 3. gargoyle, 4. Oxford: cheeky gargoyle, 5. Green-Wood Cemetery-John Matthews Monument, 6. Gargoyle, 7. Bury Gargoyle 2, 8. Bad Day, 9. the sad gargoyle -- 3-29-08, 10. Cowardly dragon/Feige Drache, 11. Gargoyle, 12. Gargoyle Teeth, 13. Nose Pick Troll, 14. Gargola, 15. York, 16. CIMG0007, 17. grotesque gargoyle, 18. paris
Generally speaking, people refer to any kind of grotesque figure on a building as a gargoyle, although the correct term for the non-waterspout ones is chimera or simply a grotesque. (Yes, I know, this is far more than you ever wanted to know about gothic architecture)
The unfortunate thing is that gargoyles have gotten a reputation in some quarters as "evil" or "demonic." Not so. Not at all so. In fact, many (if not most) gargoyles live on churches. Gargoyles are protectors, and they are guardians of the buildings on which they live and the people within. Legend has it that they come alive at night and the winged ones can fly around the countryside in the vicinity of their buildings, just to make sure their inhabitants stay safe. But they turn back to stone at dawn, so you'll always find them back in their places by morning. So a gargoyle on your house (or in your yard or on your desk) should be considered a comfort, and a good thing.
I don't push too hard on that "gargoyles are good" thing, though, because apparently my fondness for the critters has earned me a bit of "street cred" with some of my daughter's friends. I am the weird mom who likes gargoyles, so how bad could I be? In fact, any mom who likes dark creatures may even be a little bit cool, right?
Hey, I'll take my credibility any way I can get it. Don't tell the kids that mom hasn't crossed over to the dark side.