Today's word in the hand: Cabinet
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Once upon a time, a cabinet-maker was a person whose job it was to make all items of household furniture. Chairs, tables, beds, stools, spittoons ... you name it, the cabinet-maker made it.
This was before division of labour, before the couch guy went solo and founded an ottoman empire, before built-in cupboards and long before Sweden gave the world the wholesome art of knock-down assemblage.
Cabinet-makers are a rare breed in our time of smoothie-makers and plastic wood. People with enough cash to go “bespoke” (a word that once belonged to tailors but is now casually splashed on everything from ice cream to clogs) can still find joiners and carpenters to make spleen-shaped desks or whatever someone with bespoke cash might want.
But for the ordinary mortal, cabinet-makers have gone the way of cassette tapes.
Then came this week, when all of a sudden everyone remembered what a cabinet-maker was. Some were disappointed when South Africa’s cabinet-maker-in-chief did not put chisel and hammer to use in the crafting of a brand-new cabinet. Instead, he just moved a few things around in the old one. Still, it looks neater.A cabinet was not always a clutch of politicians, nor was it always a receptacle for tinned peas and aspirin. Before pills and parliaments, a cabinet was what today we might call a safe.
In the 1540s the English borrowed the word from the French (in France a cabinet was merely a small room) and turned it into a secret vault in which they stored swords and ferrets and whatever else they thought of as valuable.
The Online Etymology Dictionary takes us further back, to the Latin root of cabinet. In the ancient world a cavea was a confined pen in which one kept sheep so that they could not be got at by wolves. Or wolves, so that they would not go off and get at sheep.
Thanks to democracy, today’s cabinet may contain both wolves and sheep.
Cabinets evolved into places of policy-making in rather a strange way. In 1667, King Charles II chose five ministers to be his trusted confidantes, the bros with whom he could share stuff he might be embarrassed to tell the entire English parliament. Think of them as his National Executive Council.Their surnames were Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Cooper, so naturally they became known by the acronym cabal.
The word “cabal” already existed – it had its roots in the mystical Hebrew philosophy qabbalah and referred to a small group who met privately to discuss intriguing matters – but after Charlie’s council came into being, cabal took on a more sinister aspect and began to refer to the powerful few who pull the strings of the many.
The original group broke up due to artistic differences about five years later, but the notion that more could be achieved by few stuck and there continued to be small gatherings of select councillors.
“Cabal”, however, had become tainted by the sneaky skulduggery of Charlie’s advisers, so instead the wielders of power became known as The Cabinet. And there you have it.