Our resident linguist Neal Whitman has been thinking about the idiomatic expression "call (someone) on the carpet," in the news because of President Obama's firing of General Stanley McChrystal.

When a Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal quoted him and his subordinates disparaging his commander-in-chief, as well as Vice President Biden, President Obama summoned him for a face-to-face meeting that ended with Obama accepting McChrystal's resignation. News reports talked about this meeting as Obama "calling McChrystal on the carpet," and many of them mentioned a similar calling-on-the-carpet from last October. (Similar, that is, except for the fact that McChrystal still had his job at the end of that one.)

To call someone on the carpet is a common idiom (some would even say common enough to be a cliché) meaning to reprimand a subordinate, or demand that they explain their actions. Like many idioms, its meaning, if not actually opaque, is not entirely transparent. What is the carpet that the expression is figuratively referring to? And why is it almost always phrased "call someone on the carpet" instead of "onto the carpet"?

The expression call on the carpet has been in usage since at least 1881, when it appeared in a glossary of words and idioms published by the English Dialect Society. The entry is actually for carpet, used as a verb, meaning "to summon for the purpose of enquiry or reprimand" (a usage that the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms dates to the mid-1800s). The definition then elaborates with the related idiom:

To be 'called on the carpet' is equivalent to receiving a scolding, the metaphor being taken from a servant called into the presence of the master or mistress from an uncarpeted into a carpeted room.

In A Fine Kettle of Fish, and Other Figurative Phrases, lexicographer Laurence Urdang offers a similar explanation: It was "said of a servant called into the parlor (a carpeted area) before the master or mistress in order to be reprimanded." The American Idioms Dictionary and Dictionary of American English Phrases, both by Richard A. Spears, update the imagery from master and servant to boss and underling, stating that "The phrase presents images of a person called into the boss's carpeted office for a reprimand."

However, Spears seems to be carefully avoiding identifying this situation as the origin of the phrase. And this explanation seems a little too easy. The idea of a boss's office or other room being special because of its carpet has the same whiff of a just-so story that I get when I read bogus origins of idioms like rule of thumb or raining cats and dogs. (Check Dave Wilton's excellent Word Myths to read these stories and see them debunked.)

I won't say the boss-and-subordinate origin is false, because I don't know enough social history to judge the status of a carpeted room in the 1800s. Nevertheless, I'm inclined to be wary, especially since there is another possible origin of call on the carpet. It has to do with a seemingly unrelated meaning for the phrase on the carpet, without a verb. This expression was common in the 1800s, but the usual meaning was not "in trouble," but rather "under consideration." Many of the attestations from the 1800s in Google News Archive have this meaning, with bills, resolutions, questions, or political issues being "on the carpet." (Those that don't have that meaning usually have the literal meaning, as in "She then saw a great stain on the carpet, which was subsequently found to be due to blood.")

According to the ODI, the word carpet in this sense referred to a tablecloth, specifically the "'carpet of the council table,' a table around which a problem was debated." This, in fact, is a direct translation of the French sur le tapis, since tapis could refer to cloth used for tablecloths or carpets (or tapestries). Linguists refer to this kind of borrowing as a calque. In fact, the partial calque on the tapis is still used in English to mean "under consideration." The ODI further claims that this meaning is also the origin of the "to be reprimanded" meaning of on the carpet and the now-obsolete "reprimand" meaning of the verb carpet: one item of business that might be discussed at this table was someone's unsatisfactory job performance.

The ODI doesn't provide citations to back up this claim, but I'm still more inclined to believe it than the other origin story. First of all, the French expression sur le tapis is well-documented, even to the present day. Second, this origin even offers a possible explanation why call on the carpet is usually phrased with on instead of onto: The calqued expression on the carpet existed by itself before it was integrated into the idiom call on the carpet.

Although the boss-and-subordinate story may not be the actual origin of call on the carpet, it is eminently believable as a story people would think is the origin of call on the carpet. It's certainly the kind of situation I imagined when I tried to make sense of the idiom. It's probably what you imagined, too. With this idea of the phrase's origin in mind, at least some speakers will inevitably make adjustments in the diction to make the phrase match its supposed origin better. During the course of the last two centuries, on the carpet in its "reprimanded" sense has appeared in the expressions walk the carpet (Urdang, A Fine Kettle of Fish) and dancing on the carpet (Jonathan Lighter, Historical Dictionary of American Slang) — both activities that suggest a floor-carpet rather than a tablecloth. When using a verb like call, some speakers have taken that odd-sounding on and replaced it with its directional counterpart onto. They also use verbs other than ones of summoning, such as have, get, put, and haul. Just last week, in fact, Sally Quinn in The Washington Post wrote regarding the McChrystal affair, "This isn't the first time McChrystal has been hauled out on the carpet."

Notwithstanding all this variation that you can find with Google, the set phrase that emerges as the clear winner is call on the carpet. A search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English for phrases containing a verb followed by a pronoun and then on the carpet turns up 11 hits for variations of call on the carpet, but only two tokens of put on the carpet, and one of those was in a quotation from the 1940s, with the writer specifically calling it out as the subject's phrasing. There are no hits at all with other verbs.

Now that I've got that all sorted out, I'd like to find out what piece of legislation people have in mind when they call someone on the carpet and read them the riot act.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 28th 2010, 3:35 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Some more background information on the UK origins of the phrases:

Called on the carpet/carpeted
(including the archive section)

Riot Act
Monday June 28th 2010, 5:28 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
I wonder if is relevant to consider the arrangement, less common in these days of fitted carpets, whereby the boss would be in a large room with a polished floor but his desk (it was usually his) stood on a small square of carpet, which extended a short distance in front of the desk, where a hapless junior would stand? I remember a sketch, popular in my old professiom, with the caption: "Whar do you mean, you've been out the whole day and sold only one nuclear power station?"
Monday June 28th 2010, 5:32 AM
Comment by: Rob C. (Breda Netherlands)
For what it's worth, there's a Dutch phrase "op het matje roepen", which, apart from the diminutive, is a literal translation and has the same figurative meaning. I think there's a also a German equivalent.
Monday June 28th 2010, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Catherine M. (East Brighton Australia)
In Australia, people usually speak about "being carpeted", which bring sup disturbing images of where the tacks would be fastened...
Monday June 28th 2010, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Anthony H.
The VT dictionary contains the answer to the writer's last paragraph question. The Riot Act is or was a piece of legislation written by Britain in 1713, and enacted two years later, to proclaim any assembly a 'riot' by the simple reading of one page by designated officials. It allowed an hour for people to disperse before force could be used to break it up, with those using the force protected against punishment or legal recourse. It was last used in Britain in 1919 and repealed in 1973. As English law, its provisions ran un the American colonies, and the US enacted similar law in the Militia Act in 1792. I was taught that a cynical variation was reading the Act in English, even where audiences did not understand the language, notably in late 19th Century South Africa where such gatherings might be held by Boers, meetings that the British regarded as subversive because they allowed grievances to be aired and emotions to be shared in Afrikaans. (While the latter language was less likely to be understood by the British reesponsible for law and order, the consequences were deeply suspected - this was in the run-up to the Boer War. The Riot Act as warning thereby became a way of short-circuiting the traditional freedom of peaceful assembly, and being read in English which many boers did not understand, allowed action to put down the 'riot' to take place before many participants, including women and children, could disperse - resulting in some bloody 'riot'-quellings, involving unarmed civilians on the one side and soldiery on the other.) Even at home the act was sometimes misused, as in the 1819 'Peterloo Massacre' in Manchester. Such warning of serious consequences led to the phrase 'read them the Riot Act' to describe a particularly harsh dressing down, or remonstration, with consquences none the less threatening for being described only by allusion.
Monday June 28th 2010, 1:57 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I may seem merely to cavil, but I do treat this comment as a serious question. It springs from these statements: "Although the boss-and-subordinate story may not be the actual origin of call on the carpet, it is eminently believable as a story people would think is the origin of call on the carpet. It's certainly the kind of situation I imagined when I tried to make sense of the idiom." My question is this: isn't that imagined sense much more important to understand the meaning and use of the expression, even if it's historically incorrect?

I often find linguists caught in long-winded discussions of the "real" origins of a term or expression. The reams of bytes spent on expressions such as the "whole nine yards" comes to mind. These are interesting discussions, and they help set the historical record straight. But they illuminate very little with regard to the way we use these words and expressions today, and I would think that is the primary concern for most speakers of a given language. Can the foggy nautical origins of an expression honestly be considered revealing of its semantic content today?

I can't help but draw a parallel to legal theory, where originalists often launch sanguinary battles to defend the "original" meanings of legal terms. Most avant-garde theorists today, and most people who turn to the law (both as professionals and citizens), would much rather grasp what those terms mean today. The project to control today's language use based on what, say, the Founding Fathers intended (before computers, cars, and Internet fraud), should be nothing more than a whimsy entertained in academic discussions. It is not, of course, and it has its adherents, many of them influential.

So do attempts to overrule etymythologies, and I wonder if those energies aren't better spent on tracking language as it lives on today. As I said, I may seem just to cavil, but I would much appreciate Neal's take on the question.
Monday June 28th 2010, 2:29 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the links, Alice M, and for the writeup of the Riot Act, Anthony H. Once I learned (20 years ago) that it was just a figure of speech, I never bothered to look into whether there had ever been an actual Riot Act.

Anonymous: Your point is valid, and it even has a name among linguists: the Etymological Fallacy. That's why I made sure to include the (IMO) less likely origin along with the (IMO) more likely one: The former probably gets at what most modern speakers have in mind (if they think about the metaphor). That said, I still favor busting etymythologies that needlessly and stupidly distort history, such as those about rule of thumb and raining cats and dogs. The one about call on the carpet isn't outrageous like those; I just don't think it happens to be the actual origin.

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