Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Reading Proust has made me wonder: what does drawing-room mean? Could the word have originally referred to a room in which accomplished young ladies worked on their sketching? Alas, no. Here's a charmingly quaint definition from the Oxford English Dictionary of the word's meanings then and "now":

1. a. orig. A room to withdraw to, a private chamber attached to a more public room . . . ; now, a room reserved for the reception of company, and to which the ladies withdraw from the dining-room after dinner.
The OED records the word's first appearance in 1642, as a shortening of withdrawing-room, which itself goes back to 1591. The even older withdrawing-chamber dates to 1392.

So I began to wonder about withdraw, which suddenly looked rather odd. Why does it mean what it does? The explanation is found in the word retire, which comes into English from the French retirer, "to withdraw," from re- and tirer, "to draw, to pull; to take out, to extract" (Cassell's French-English Dictionary). So to withdraw is to retire.

I shall now retire to the drawing-room.

Oops, it's ladies only.

comments: 5

JuliaR said...

I love word origins. I try to encourage my students to look in the dictionary for any words that seem different to them, not only for the meaning assigned by our class, but for all the other meanings too, so they can get a better grasp of the whiole sense of the word. Unfortunately, most of them look at me as if I'm somewhat eccentric. Alas. I can only hope I might influence a few.

Michael Leddy said...

I've found that it's not unusual for students to settle for the first definition, no matter how unrelated to context it might be. When I teach poetry, I like showing students how much it's possible to work out from the simple habit of looking up words and reading all that's there (e.g., the way various words will suggest some common range of connotation).

It's sad, isn't it, that so many paperback dictionaries no longer include etymologies, even sketchy ones.

Thanks for the comment, Julia.

JuliaR said...

Apropos of this discussion, I am having a lovely time reading (for the first time) the old Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. I had heard of them but never really read "standard mysteries". I only picked one up because I needed a cheap used paperback to take on a recent flight. The two I have read so far were published in 1921 and 1934. The language is wonderfully evocative of the era and yet I am surprised to find that the concerns of people are essentially the same as they are today. What tickles me is that there are some terms with which I am not familiar, such as the mention of something called "American cloth" covering a table. As I am a bit of an Anglophile and I did spend a year in London acquiring my LL.M., I am familiar with many of the current Britishisms that tend to show up on Jeopardy. But I do need to look up some of the older terms and am having a great time doing so. Perhaps something odd like this might spark the imagination of one of your students, in the quest for a love of language.

Also, I just remembered, when I was quite young, I glommed onto the C.S. Lewis Narnia chronicles which lead me to Tolkein which introduced me to the concept of philology. I read how he got many of the elvish names and other words for the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the Welsh words he saw go by on trains! Maybe with the movies now being part of popular culture, you could use this as a tool. Just a thought.

Finally, I have noticed that the free on-line dictionary has word origins, so this may also be a resource for your students.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the suggestions and the dictionary link, Julia. I know from my childhood how any odd, colorful word, anywhere, can spark an interest in language.

"American cloth": I guessed "oilcloth" and was amazed to see that I guessed right. Snooping around online, I found a reference to an article by Allen Walker Read, "The Adjective 'American' in England," American Speech 25 (1950): 280-289. I just got a copy in .pdf form from my library via JSTOR -- if you'd like a copy, send me your e-mail address (michael leddy at yahoo dot com).

JuliaR said...

Michael, thanks for the offer of the pdf. I did send you an email but since I didn't get a response, I wondered if it had gone astray. In any event, I would never have guessed "oilcloth" - I would have thought the Brits would be more of a master at waterproof fabric than the Americans!

My email is jringma at rogers dot com.
Cheers. :)