Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Drapes, Curtains, and an Old Political Standby

In the home stretch of the presidential campaign trail, John McCain has been saying that his opponent Barack Obama is so sure that he's bound for the White House that he's already "measuring the drapes." It's a durable political expression, though very often it's said as "measuring for drapes" (which makes a bit more sense), and sometimes it's curtains that get presumptuously measured (for), rather than drapes. What's the difference, anyway?

I looked into the history of drape- and curtain-measuring after reading Richard Leiby's dissection of the expression in the Washington Post. The earliest appearance that Leiby uncovered was from 1980, in a New York Times reference to independent presidential candidate John Anderson: "Obviously, it's much too soon for Mr. Anderson to start measuring for drapes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

By searching on both drapes and curtains I was able to push the date back a few decades earlier. Martha Taft, wife of Senator Robert Taft, was suspected in 1940 of wanting to "change the drawing-room drapes in the White House." Then in the spring of 1968, the columnist Jack Wilson joked that after Bobby Kennedy jumped into the Democratic primary, he wanted to talk to President Johnson so that his wife Ethel could "get in to measure for curtains." And in October '68, Hubert Humphrey said of Richard Nixon, "Why, he's even been to Washington to look at the White House and measure for drapes." (You can read more about the history of the expression in my recent Language Log post, which got picked up by the New York Times political blog, The Caucus.)

Users of the political cliché have freely alternated between drapes and curtains. The Visual Thesaurus treats them as synonyms, sharing the sense "hanging cloth used as a blind (especially for a window)," but some make a more fine-grained distinction. The website Well Dressed Windows, for instance, says "Drapes are pleated and are more formal, whereas curtains are informal and generally gathered." Curtains are historically older, referring to window coverings since the early eighteenth century, while drapes emerged in North American usage in the late nineteenth century. In a comment on my Language Log post, Boston Globe language columnist Jan Freeman provides some more background:

Drapes vs. curtains nowadays designates more formal vs. less formal, but drapes was socially taboo for some decades. In the 1950 edition of Etiquette, Emily Post says:

Drapes — this word is an inexcusable vulgarism.
Curtains are hung at a window; hangings as decoration of walls. It is true draperies would be correct for many loopings or shirrings or pleatings, especially on a woman's dress.

(There's no mention of drapes in the 1922 edition of Post, so presumably the usage problem had not yet arisen.)

Miss Manners, at least as late as 1983, concurs, calling drapes and drapery faux-elegant commercial words.

Miss Manners might think it's faux-elegant, but drapes are pretty well established in American usage for formal window treatments, the kind you'd find in the Oval Office. As drapes have developed fancier connotations, curtains (once a catch-all term) have been pushed into less formal territory — gathered rather than pleated, according to Well Dressed Windows. This kind of semantic shift reminds me of how in the U.S., home has largely displaced house in the language of realtors, to the point that townhouses are now routinely called townhomes. Sometimes a previously serviceable word can be shunted aside in favor of something a bit more genteel.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 30th 2008, 10:40 AM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
Thanks for the etymology lesson. I think what's most interesting about how the candidates use these idioms lies in how much semantic power is released upon sarcastic impact. For example, the Obama lipstick on a pig reference elicited some laughs but backfired because it crossed the line of "genteel" polite verbal zingers, whereas McCain's drapes reference hits a bit harder though retaining its inherent subtlety and simplicity.

He's calling Obama a grandstanding arrogant sob, basically, but in such a gentlemanly way, much as we'd like to think (and perhaps was true) the spirit of political debate a century ago was manifested.

Letterman, in recent opening monologues of his show, blatantly crosses the line and so by comparison his "humor" should be considered repugnant to all but the most rabid Republican haters.

Any thoughts? I think the issue of humor turns on the very core of language's power to affect thought and perception, but I'm sure much has written on the subject, no?

Thursday October 30th 2008, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I think McCain's slip in saying "measuring the drapes" rather than "measuring for drapes" is telling. It shows that he had no interest in conveying what the expression he was using actually means (why would someone measure the drapes?). He was deploying it solely for rhetorical effect, to elicit the emotional reaction that he knew it would produce.

It's a subtle illustration of how interested the McCain campaign is in appealing to gut emotion rather than to the intellect (a trend we have seen in numerous other contexts); and how to them, lack of content is not a detriment.
Thursday October 30th 2008, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Wood F.: To be fair, the "measuring the drapes/curtains" variant is attested since at least 1970, and in fact it appears to be more common now than the version with "for". This often happens as phrases become idioms: the original sense gets a bit lost as the wording becomes crystallized.

(See my Language Log post for more examples with and without "for".)
Thursday October 30th 2008, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I think Wood F's comments reveal his own bias since, of course, it would obviously be appropriate to measure a set of drapes in order to establish the size for replacements.

One of the terrible things about politics is how even the most innocuous comment can be twisted by enemies supposedly to point to some terrible character defect — such as, in this case, a propensity for "...appealing to gut emotion rather than to the intellect."

My hide-bound Republican cousins bombard me constantly with similar sorts of twisted observations about Obama.

I guess you can't be a politician these days without being able "...to bear to see the words you've spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools."

I expect that the word "knave" is to harsh for the current discussion, but Kipling's comment points to a genuine requirement for people who want to get into the public arena to grow extra layers of epidermis (Can I use the noun like that?).
Thursday October 30th 2008, 4:48 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
What I find fascinating from the political-linguistic perspective is how -- at least to me -- the conservatives are so much more in tune to symbolic phrases and messages than liberals.

"Measuring the drapes" is just one of many symbolic phrases that appears to grab hold of the imagination... the creative side of the brain... where you quickly glimpse smug Obama staffers eagerly pre-preparing for the inevitable. The idea evoked by this phrase -- smugness -- is annoying to anyone, but it's just so much more effective to evoke a symbol that links to smugness than to simply come right out and say "Obama is smug and overconfident."

Conversely, liberals tend to go right for the words that describe what they're thinking, and skip the symbolic realm. How many liberals have you heard say "Bush is an idiot" or "Palin is incompetent" or "McCain is too old." Yikes -- a whole bunch of fancy symbolic management there, eh?

I would argue (which I do regularly on my progressive advocacy political blog, Our Karl Rove [ http://OurKarlRove.com]) that symbolic language is far more powerful in the political sphere than precise language. Symbolic language engages our own minds in the discourse -- making the message more personalized and powerful. Conversely, simply being told something is a passive sport.
Monday November 3rd 2008, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
Don H. -- Point well taken. My comment does indeed betray my personal bias... although I'm not sure that makes it any less valid (Ben Z's comment notwithstanding). But Jon D.'s addendum is a nice refinement of my thought -- saying 'measuring for (or the) drapes' brings the discussion into the realm of the symbolic (where, to me, the emotions hold sway more deeply). Again it comes down to appealing to gut emotion rather than the intellect, a sentiment I won't back down from.

Symbolism is a dangerous thing in politics, because once a symbol gets away from you, there's no telling what damage it might do. The symbols 'Joe the Plumber' and 'Sarah Palin,' fortunately in my view, backfired on McCain.
Saturday November 15th 2008, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
I wish that someone would have used the word "Obamavangelist."

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