Coming to Terms During the Holidays

As Americans open their hearts to their fellow man this Thanksgiving, many families will also be opening their homes and cupboards to guests, both welcome and, perhaps, unwelcome.  And while they clean their spare bedrooms and prepare extra food in an effort to provide “room and board,” some may wonder, what, exactly, does that phrase mean?

To provide a “room” is clear enough, but why did the word “board” take hold as a phrase signifying the provision of food?

The answer to this lies deep in history, before even the first Thanksgiving.  In Medieval times, people did not dine at tables, at least not the tables that we know.  In those days, a table was a simple board, on which people placed their food as they ate.

In wealthier homes, the board was placed on a trestle or some other end support.  In less well-off households, however, even the trestle was a luxury.  Diners simply rested the board on their knees as they ate.  Either way, the board signified a place to eat.

The “board” in “room and board,” then, simply meant to have a place at the table from which to dine.  It is from this origin, too, that the terms “boarding house” and “boarding school” developed.

Of course, the board wasn’t only used for dining; it was also useful for holding discussions.  Hence, a “boardroom” came to mean a room in which discussions were held.  A “board of directors” signified organization leaders who sat, literally, at the board.

The seating for most of these individuals, whether dining or deliberating, was supplied by benches.  For the head of the household or the leader of an organization, however, a chair might be supplied to designate authority.   Thus, to “chair” a meeting is to preside over the meeting, a function typically assumed by the “Chairman of the Board” in a “boardroom.”

Today, the term “Chairman of the Board” is sometimes used figuratively.  Former Yankees’ pitcher Whitey Ford, for example, was occasionally referred to as the “Chairman of the Board” because of his immense skill and the fact that his name rhymed nicely with the phrase.

Chairman of the Board Whitey Ford

Frank Sinatra was also known as “Chairman of the Board,” although this sobriquet was meant both informally and formally.  In addition to being a peerless singer, Sinatra also commanded vast business holdings—a record company, a personal staff of seventy five, and three planes, so his title was well earned.

Frank Sinatra, Chairman of the Board

Of course, whether the phrase is used formally or informally, one hopes that the “chair” of any organization will be “above board” while conducting business.  This phrase comes from the world of card games, where players who kept their hands “above board” (on the card table) were perceived as honest, while players who kept their cards “under the table” might be switching cards or otherwise engaged in subterfuge.

And this phrase, “under the table,” brings us back to contemporary times and the familiar piece of furniture on which we eat today.  But even this term has its mysterious usages which can sometimes lead to as much confusion as the old-school “board.”

Consider, for example, that the term “table,” in its parliamentary sense, has exactly opposite meanings in England and the United States.  In England, to table a motion means to consider or entertain the motion.  In the United States, tabling a motion means to postpone it indefinitely.

No wonder Winston Churchill referred to the two countries as “divided by a common language.”

Alas, sometimes the offer of room and board during the holiday season leads to family divisions as well.  But as you sit down to eat this Thanksgiving, let those divisions slip away.  If nothing else, be grateful that you have the opportunity to eat your Thanksgiving feast from a table while sitting in a chair.

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Filed under Articles, Food, Language, Society

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