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Closeted language

Q: I was speaking to my grandmother about getting less-than-desirable presents for Christmas and she said, “We used to put them in the chifen robe.” When I asked about the term, she said it referred to a closet where her mother stored unwanted gifts to be regifted. I’m not sure of the spelling, but I’d appreciate any information you can provide.

A: The term your grandmother used is usually spelled “chifforobe.” It combines two different terms—“chiffonier” and “wardrobe.”

Words like this are sometimes called portmanteau words, which we’ve written about before on our blog. They get their name from their resemblance to a portmanteau, a case that has two hinged compartments.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “chifforobe” originated in the US and means “a piece of furniture incorporating a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.”

It was first recorded, according to OED citations, in a 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog that carried this entry: “The chifforobes as illustrated on this page are a modern invention, having been in use only a short time.”

The word is sometimes rendered as “chiffing robe,” and your grandma’s version, “chifen robe,” isn’t unusual either.

The OED cites this example from Carson McCullers’s novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1953): “The room was furnished with a large ‘chiffen robe.’ ”

Like chifforobes, both chiffoniers and wardrobes are free-standings cupboards devoted to storage, much like large dressers but with extras.

Now that homes have built-in closets, we see less of words like “chiffonier” and “wardrobe,” which were once common household terms.

The OED defines a “chiffonier” as “a piece of furniture, consisting of a small cupboard with the top made so as to form a sideboard.”

The word comes from French, in which chiffonnier or chiffonnière originally meant a “rag-gatherer,” the OED says. (In French, chiffon means rag.)

By transference, chiffonnier was later used in French to mean “a piece of furniture with drawers in which women put away their needlework, cuttings of cloth, etc.,” says the OED, quoting the French lexicographer Émile Littré.

The use of “chiffonier” in English, the OED says, was first recorded in 1806 in reference to the furniture.

In the 1850s, in conscious imitation of the French, it was also used in English to mean a rag-picker.

The word was sometimes spelled “sheffonier,” which the OED says “represents the common pronunciation.”

The other half of your grandmother’s word—“wardrobe’’—is much older than “chiffonier” and may date from the 1300s.

It comes from the Old French word warderobe, a variant of garderobe, a locked room for safeguarding clothing, armor, and other valuables.

When “wardrobe” came into our language during the Middle English period, it originally meant a separate room for storing clothing and armor—similar to a dressing room.

As far as we can tell, the word didn’t mean a movable cupboard until the late 1700s.

The term “wardrobe” is used this way twice on the title page of The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterers Guide (1788), a book of furniture designs by George Hepplewhite. The term is also used this way in four of the engravings, printed in 1787.

(The book was written by Hepplewhite’s widow, Alice, who ran the enterprise as A. Hepplewhite & Company after his death in 1786.)

Each wardrobe in the engravings is described as about four feet wide and seven feet tall, shaped more or less like a refrigerator.

Each has tall doors on top and three to four drawers on the bottom. Behind the doors are five slide-out shelves for folded clothes.

Finally, in case you’re interested, we once wrote a posting on the blog about the verbs “gift” and “regift”:

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