Q: I’m too shy to call in when you’re on the radio so I’m writing. Why do people say “ivory tower” in reference to academia? The phrases “ivy tower” or “ivied tower” would seem to make more sense.
A: The expression “ivory tower” has a long and interesting history, dating back to the Old Testament. Here’s an excerpt from the King James translation of the Song of Solomon: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon.”
In the 17th century, several English writers used the phrase in poems influenced by the Song of Solomon. Here’s an example from A Paraphrase Upon the Canticles (1679) by Samuel Woodford: “Thy neck is like a Tower of Ivory, Hung with the Trophies of Love’s Victory.”
All these early references seem to refer to purity or beauty. But in 1837, the French literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve used the expression tour d’ivoire to describe what he considered the aloof, unworldly poetry of Alfred de Vigny.
This usage of “ivory tower,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a condition of seclusion or separation from the world” or “shelter from the harsh realities of life,” made its way into English in the early 20th century.
The OED’s first English citation for this sense is from a 1911 translation of an essay in which Henri Bergson says each member of society “must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.”
For decades, the phrase was primarily used to describe writers, artists, and occasionally public officials who were isolated from the realities of life. In fact, none of the early citations in the OED refer to academia.
The first published reference that puts “ivory tower” on campus is in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group (1963): “We called you the Ivory Tower group. Aloof from the battle.” An article in the Economist that same year refers to dons “attached to academic ivory-toweredness.”
As for all those “ivy” and “ivied” expressions that refer to academic life, the earliest citation I find in the OED is one from the late 19th century about “the ivied wall of the Bodleian,” the library at Oxford University.
A 1933 article in the New York Herald Tribune refers to football “among the ivy colleges.” And a 1939 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly says: “The ‘Ivy League’ is something which does not exist and is simply a term which has been increasingly used in recent years by sports writers, applied rather loosely to a group of eastern colleges.”
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