Friday, July 16, 2010


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is bandbox:

bandbox   \BAND-bahks\   noun

1 : a usually cylindrical box of cardboard or thin wood for holding light articles of attire
*2 : a structure (as a baseball park) having relatively small interior dimensions

Example sentence: “Baseballs flew out of there at a record pace for a while, and everyone had theories about why this stadium was behaving like a bandbox, despite similar dimensions to the old place.” (Filip Bondy, Daily News [New York], November 8, 2009)

Did you know? In the 17th century, the word “band” was sometimes used for ruffs, the large round collars of pleated muslin or linen worn by men and women of the time period, and the bandbox was invented for holding such bands. The flimsy cardboard structure of the box inspired people to start using its name for any flimsy object, especially a small and insubstantial one. But people also contemplated the neat, sharp appearance of ruffs just taken from a bandbox and began using the word in a complimentary way in phrases such as “she looked as if she came out of a bandbox.” Today, “bandbox” can also be used as an adjective meaning “exquisitely neat, clean, or ordered,” as in “bandbox military officers.”
The word bandbox sticks in my head because of Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel Aberration of Starlight (1980). The word appears twice in Marie Recco’s interior monologue, first in Marie’s mother Bridget McGrath’s description of Marie, then in Marie’s description of her ex-husband Tony:
He worshiped the ground she walked on. Went out for chow mein and came back with little red embroidered slippers. Chinese apples. Bouquets of flowers. In January. Why not? her mother said. You always looked like you stepped out of a bandbox. Where did their kind ever see a girl with your looks and breeding?


What happened? Red silk slippers. Bouquets and boxes of chocolate. Coming out of the hold of that ship like he just stepped out of a bandbox.
Is it unusual to associate a word with its appearance in a work of literature? Apoplexy has meant Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to me since sixth grade. Since college, sempiternal has equalled T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. Avatar: William Faulkner’s Light in August. Sanguine: Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. And heifer: John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” though I had to teach the poem in east-central Illinois to learn the proper pronunciation. (Thanks, Sally.)

What words have these sorts of literary associations for you?

A related post
Gilbert Sorrentino (1929–2006)

comments: 8

Elaine Fine said...

Band is the German word for "ribbon," so the English name for the frilly neckwear makes sense.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Elaine.

stefan said...

Mine's an obvious and ugly one, and perhaps as a neologism, it doesn't count. But on the plus side, it is a timely selection: I read that Tipi Kupferberg, a founding member of the Fugs, died recently. Like Mr. Kupferberg, I associate "fug" with Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.

Michael Leddy said...

I wonder whether Mailer was the first to use it in print. The OED, I’m surprised to see, has nothing about it.

Elaine said...


Charlotte's Web

I still have my copy of this book, my 8th birthday gift from my great-aunt. One of my treasures.

This is my second try to post. Was I not worthy??

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, this is the first time I’ve seen your “salutations.”

Someone else e-mailed me recently about problems with commenting. I switched from the box-at-end-of-post to this full-page format. Maybe that helped.

Salutations to you too!

Anonymous said...

In George Joy's 1895 painting, "The Bayswater Omnibus," the young woman on the far right, entering the omnibus, is carrying a bandbox in the crook of her left arm.

Some years ago narrative elsewhere about this painting caused me to look up and learn the meaning of bandbox. I sometimes use this painting as background on my computer monitors.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the link, Anon.