The Grammarphobia Blog

Book ‘depository’ or ‘repository’?

Q: What’s the difference between “repository” and “depository”? Why, for example, is the Beinecke library at Yale often referred to as a repository while that notorious building in Dallas was called the Texas School Book Depository?

A: The two words overlap, but “repository” is more expansive than “depository.”

Standard dictionaries define both “repository” and “depository” as a place where something is stored, but then go on to say a “repository” can specifically mean a warehouse, a museum, a burial vault, a person entrusted with secrets, the site of a natural resource, and someone or something considered a store of knowledge.

Both words are of Latin origin. “Depository” ultimately comes from dēpōnere, classical Latin for to lay away, while “repository” is ultimately derived from repōnere, classical Latin for to put away or store. (In ancient Rome, a repositōrium was a portable stand for serving courses at a meal.)

When the oldest of the English terms, “repository,” showed up in writing in the 15th century, it meant a “place or receptacle in which things are or may be deposited, esp. for storage or safe keeping,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce, Charles the Grete, William Caxton’s 1485 translation of a French biography of Charlemagne:

“Of the floures charles put a parte in a reposytorye.” (The flowers here are said to have bloomed on thorns that came from Jesus’s crown of thorns.)

When “depository” appeared in the 18th century, the dictionary says, it similarly referred to a “place or receptacle in which things are deposited or placed for safe keeping; a storehouse, a repository.”

The first OED citation describes Alexandria as “the depository of all merchandizes from the East and West” (from a 1752 book on commercial law by the English entrepreneur Wyndham Beawes).

“Depository” is still primarily used to mean a place to store things safely, but “repository” has taken on many more specific senses, though all are related in one way or other to its original storage sense.

In the 16th century, for example, “repository” began being used for someone entrusted with confidential information. In the 17th, it came to mean a burial vault, warehouse, marketplace, art museum, and someone who’s a store of knowledge. In the 18th century, it became the site of a natural resource, and in the 19th, an archive or a library.

That’s why the Beinecke library is referred to as a repository for rare books and manuscripts while the Dallas building, primarily a place to store textbooks for distribution, was called a depository.

We’ll end with an example from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield, of “repository” used in the sense of a confidante: “I wanted somebody to talk to, then. I missed Agnes. I found a tremendous blank, in the place of that smiling repository of my confidence.”

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