Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

On the Carpet

Posted by Neal on June 28, 2010

Over at Visual Thesaurus (behind a paywall), I have a column talking about the history of the idiom to call someone on the carpet. I’ve sometimes wondered why this expression says on the carpet instead of onto the carpet. Was there something I was missing? Maybe it didn’t mean to summon someone onto some (ceremonial?) carpet, but to call someone while you yourself were standing on the carpet…?

In short, the answer’s no, and at least originally, the metaphor did not allude to a boss dressing down some poor underling who is standing on a carpet in the boss’s office or parlor. The verbless phrase on the carpet was a direct translation of the French sur le tapis “on the tablecloth,” when carpet could refer to tablecloths, and something “on the carpet” (or “on the table,” as we’d say today) was under consideration.

One source that wasn’t directly useful for this column was the Dictionary of American Regional English (affectionately known as DARE to linguists and lexicographers). I mention it here, though, because it had another definition for the phrase on the carpet. As used in North Carolina, Texas, and Arkansas, it means “eager to marry.” Complementing this phrase is one that I found in a source that really was useful for the column: the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (affectionately known as HDAS to linguists and lexicographers). It listed step off the carpet to mean get married. These were both new to me. Any of you familiar with them? If so, where are you from?


2 Responses to “On the Carpet”

  1. Alan Palmer said

    I’m from England. I have a memory of hearing a different story. It may have been on the BBC TV show QI, but I’m not sure, just as I cannot vouch for the fact that there is any truth in what was said.

    Apparently it was a British army expression. The Commanding Officer of a unit would have an office, with a strip of carpet in front of the desk. Hapless junior officers due a telling-off for some misdemeanour or other would have to stand rigidly to attention in front of the desk while being bawled out. Hence they were “carpeted”.

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