pigeonhole

< Previous | Next >

Linhpi

Senior Member
Vietnamese
I come across this sentence "He lifted the flap on what he still called, to the immense amusement of his American colleagues, his pigeonhole." I just wonder if "pigeonhole" is more popular in England than in the U.S.? None of my dictionaries says it is British English anyway but the sentence above just made me curious.

Thank you very much for any information.

PS: The sentence has its setting in the late 1960s, "he" is an Englishman.
 
  • xqby

    Senior Member
    English (U.S.)
    Is his pigeonhole a mailbox? That's what I've found through the dictionary; suffice it to say that "pigeonhole" is uncommon enough as a noun in America that I wasn't familiar with such a meaning.

    It's commonly used as a verb here.
     

    Linhpi

    Senior Member
    Vietnamese
    Is his pigeonhole a mailbox? That's what I've found through the dictionary; suffice it to say that "pigeonhole" is uncommon enough as a noun in America that I wasn't familiar with such a meaning.

    It's commonly used as a verb here.
    Yes, it means a mailbox in this context, too.
     

    pops91710

    Senior Member
    English, AE
    Is his pigeonhole a mailbox? That's what I've found through the dictionary; suffice it to say that "pigeonhole" is uncommon enough as a noun in America that I wasn't familiar with such a meaning.

    It's commonly used as a verb here.
    You must be too young. Pigeonhole is very common in American English. It is a verb as well as a noun. The small cubical divisions in a rolltop desk are called pigeonholes. Ergo the expression to pigeonhole something means to set it aside and not act on it or ignore it.

    Apparently the Englishman's "pigeonhole" is something comical that is not revealed in the context cited.
     

    xqby

    Senior Member
    English (U.S.)
    Ergo the expression to pigeonhole something means to set it aside and not act on it or ignore it.
    That's not what the expression means to me. :)

    I think of pigeonholing as poorly categorizing something based on an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of its attributes. Of course, I can see how that would also be derived from a small drawer.
     

    out2lnch

    Senior Member
    English-Canada
    I refer to my mailbox at work as a pigeonhole, as do my co-workers. It is like what pops describes, but there is not roll-top desk, just a big box with little cubbies for the mail, placed upon a metal and faux-wood table.
     

    UUBiker

    Senior Member
    United States, English
    Interestingly, our pigeonholes in the United States are mailboxes (occasionally mailslots) even though this creates a terrible polysemy, as a "mailbox" more generally is the metal box outside where mail is collected for delivery (increasingly difficult to find).
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I think of pigeonholing as poorly categorizing something based on an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of its attributes. Of course, I can see how that would also be derived from a small drawer.
    I agree with this succinct definition.

    Older hotels have an array of pigeonholes behind the front desk, where the keys are kept, along with any mail or messages left for the occupant of the room.

    Post office boxes have locked doors on them, but these open slots at front desks have been around as long as there've been hotels. They look so much more like real pigeonholes than mailboxes do, that I wonder if they may not be the origin of the term. www.etymonline.com (an excellent word-origin source) is silent on the subject.

    To "pigeonhole" something is to assign it to its proper place, perhaps a little punctiliously, so the verb doesn't refer to dovecotes, whose nests are generally accessible to the flock at large. I would guess the comparison arose first with hotel key/mail slots, since they look more like real pigeonholes. Possibly someone with access to the OED can come up with a more complete explanation about when mailboxes were first called by that name.
     

    tannen2004

    Senior Member
    English/USA
    The OED's first example for the mailbox variety ("One of a series of open compartments in a desk, range of shelves, etc., used for storing or sorting mail, papers, goods, etc.") is 1688 (John Locke). The category usage doesn't appear until 1869.
     

    Linhpi

    Senior Member
    Vietnamese
    Thanks for your all replies. Actually before posting this thread I had done a little search, including searching images so I had quite a clear idea of what a pigeonhole is. What troubles me is just why the Englishman amused/surprised his American colleagues by calling a pigeonhole a pigeonhole? (It's really a pigeonhole, with the flap in front and the mail sent to him inside). I guessed maybe it's because the word "pigeonhole" is uncommon in the U.S., at least in the late 1960s when the story set, but I have nothing to base my guess on.

    PS: Yes, foxfirebrand, etymoline is silent about the subject (I had searched on it before putting my question here).
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top