Cabinet reshuffle: from furniture to politics in a single OED entry

Cabinet reshuffle: from furniture to politics in a single OED entry

Working on the OED is a constant education. Not only are you exposed to words and ideas from fields far beyond your own, but even everyday terms and expressions can suddenly take on new resonance when you start working on them and discover their history. I had never really given much thought to the fact that the word ‘cabinet’ denotes both an item of furniture and a committee of senior government ministers; I simply accepted it, as one does the endless stream of lexical oddities that one doesn’t have the time or inclination to investigate. If pressed, I might have guessed that the ministers are shut up in a figurative ‘cabinet’ when meeting – a guess not a million miles from the truth, as it turns out! Let us open the doors of the revised OED entry for cabinet, and peer within…

When you look at cabinet, the first thing that might strike you is that the earliest sense (originally denoting a case for storing valuables, and later the familiar piece of furniture) isn’t the one that you would expect. Etymologically, cabinet is pretty transparently a ‘small cabin’, so why isn’t OED sense 4 (which means exactly that – a small cabin or hut) the earliest? The answer lies in the ambiguous status of cabinet as a word that makes etymological sense in English, but is also heavily influenced by, and in early use probably borrowed directly from, French (from which both cabin and the diminutive suffix -et also derive). In French, the earliest sense is ‘small room’, and the furniture sense appears some time later – and only a short while before cabinet is attested in English.

The first edition of the OED was produced with far fewer resources than we have access to today, and this was particularly the case for the period up to 1700. If the editors of the first edition had reason to suspect that they were missing crucial medieval or early modern evidence for a word’s development, they might choose to disregard strict chronology and organize the senses according to what they believed was their logical development. This is what they did with cabinet, in which the ‘small cabin’ sense was given as sense 1 even though it wasn’t the sense for which they had the earliest quotation evidence. In the third edition of the OED, however, every entry is organized chronologically, and any apparent anomalies in sense development in cabinet can be explained by the fact that senses were being adopted from French out of sequence, as it were. In fact, it’s striking how closely spaced chronologically the early senses of cabinet are: the ‘small case / furniture’ strand no later than 1549, the ‘receptable / repository’ sense slightly later, then the ‘private room’ sense in 1566 and finally the ‘small cabin’ and ‘summer house / bower’ senses in 1567. This proliferation of senses in such a short space of time is also strongly suggestive of borrowing, and a similar pattern can be seen in chamber and camera.

Another thing that may strike you is that many of these senses are now obsolete: apart from the ‘furniture’ strand of sense 1, which of course is still going strong, only the ‘room’ strand of sense 3 (hanging on by its teeth) and the more recent senses 5 and 6 are still extant from the ‘general use’ branch of the entry. The sheer success of sense 1 is probably the best explanation for this. However, as we know, the political strand managed to escape the pull of sense 1 and establish itself firmly in the language. So how does it fit into the picture?

The answer lies in sense 3, the just-about-surviving ‘room’ strand of the general senses. The relatively small and private room to which a monarch might withdraw to consult confidential advisers was originally just another ‘cabinet’ of the type denoted by sense 3a, and was therefore so designated in the first years of James VI of Scotland’s arrival in England to take up his royal inheritance as James I. Cabinet had passed into adjectival use at the end of the sixteenth century to denote association with such private rooms and hence coming to mean ‘private’ or ‘secret’, so the advice that James received in his private chamber might be referred to as ‘cabinet counsel’ and his confidential advisers as ‘cabinet counsellors’. The currency of both of these terms, and confusion between the words counsel and council, probably contributed to the coinage of the term ‘Cabinet Council’ (or sometimes ‘Council of the Cabinet’) to denote the body of advisers meeting in the royal cabinet. The first edition of the OED noted that the first ‘Cabinet Council’ was “[a]pparently introduced, at the accession of Charles I, in 1625”, but its first evidence for the term dated only to 1632; satisfyingly, we were able to antedate this, and the new first quotation for this term does indeed date to the period immediately following Charles I’s accession. From here, it is a relatively short step to ‘cabinet’ being used to denote the body of advisers rather than the room in which they meet, and the earliest example appears in the context of the Civil War, when Charles had access to advisers but not to any of his rooms in Whitehall, private or otherwise. This is the strand of meaning that has established itself in political contexts, while the use of cabinet to denote the chamber in which the advisers meet has largely fallen off, along with the more general ‘room’ strand. This leaves the two predominant strands of meaning mostly but not quite fully separated, like two islands connected by a causeway that is just about manageable at low tide.

Other than bringing the entry up to date in terms of style, editorial policy, quotation evidence and so on, there were no great changes to implement to cabinet for the third edition: the shift in meaning had been explicated by the original editors, and the two-branch structure was already in place. So this story of discovery was a purely personal one, rather than something for which I can take any credit. I hope, however, that this brief account of the word’s history has been as interesting for you as the process of revision was for me. It seems unlikely that either strand of meaning will die out at this point, but stranger things have happened – who knows what a future edition of the OED might have to say about it?

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