Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Called on the Carpet
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.