Issue 203, page 1

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Drawing (or Drawring, if you like!)

A reader wrote to ask how so many different meanings came to be associated with one word: draft.  He gave as examples the following meanings:

  • a rough sketch of a piece of writing
  • the selection of persons for a duty
  • a current of air in an enclosed space
  • an order of money drawn from an account
  • a drink
  • the amount of water a ship displaces when loaded

This is much more interesting than it may seem at first glance.

First, we need to establish that draft is simply the modern phonetic spelling of draught Draught (we'll get to draft a little later) is first recorded in English in about 1200.  It is not recorded in Old English but is nevertheless thought to have existed (the suggested forms are *dreaht and/or *drht) as there are corresponding forms in Old High German and Old Icelandic, and there is possibly even a Russian relative - drogi "wagon" ("that which is drawn"), from which English got droshky.  This suggests an Indo-European root of *dhragh- "to draw, to drag on the ground".  The sense of draw here is "to pull".  As you may have imagined, draw comes from that same Indo-European root but, unlike draught, it does turn up in Old English.

The earliest specific sense of the noun draught that exists in the written record is "the drawing of liquid into the mouth or down the throat" or "an act of drinking".  This dates from around 1200.  We still encounter this usage in historical fiction when someone is said to "take a deep draught" of some drink, usually ale or wine, and that also gave us draught "a dose of liquid medicine" (1656).  A bit later (around 1250) we find the meaning "the drawing of a brush, pen, pencil, or the like, across the surface, so as to make a line or mark".  So you see where the notion of drawing a picture comes from -- you are not actually drawing the picture, etymologically speaking.  You are instead drawing (dragging) the pen or pencil on paper to make the picture!

The notion that today gives us draughtsman (or draftsman) and drafting table dates from around 1400: "that which is drawn or delineated; a representation (of an object) by lines drawn on the surface of paper, etc."  That general sense is now obsolete and the specific sense of "a plan of something to be constructed" is the one that remains in draftsman and drafting table (although in the U.K. there is a board game called draughts, and the pieces are called draughtsmen -- these pieces are "drawn" across the board; in the U.S. this is called checkers).

The notion of what we now think of as a rough draft or "preliminary version" of a piece of writing arose in the early 16th century as an extension of the "draw (a brush, pencil or pen across a page to make a mark)" meaning.  As for the "money" sense of draught (today draft), that derives from the sense of the check or draft being a representation of money to be 'drawn' from a specific account.  That particular meaning dates from the mid-18th century, but a more specialized meaning, from which that one derives, was "the drawing or withdrawing of money from a stock by means of an order written in due form", dating from the mid-17th century.

The sense of "a current of air, especially in a confined space" dates from a bit later than some of the other senses, the mid-18th century.  Here the notion is that the air is being drawn in (due to a temperature/pressure differential).  The nautical sense of "the action of 'drawing' or displacing (so much) water" first turns up in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night of 1601.  Then we have the military sense of "the drawing off, detachment, or selection of a party from a larger body for some special duty or purpose".  This arose in the early 18th century and was spelled draught, but by 1780 we find it spelled draft.  So the notion of the draft is that men are 'drawn' out of the population to serve in the military.

The connection with "dragging" or "drawing" was obscured when, for many meanings, the phonetic draft spelling came to be favored over draught.  There are some instances in late Middle English of draught being spelled drawt.  That is how Melanie pronounced it in her head when she read it as a child, patterning it after caught and taught.

There are also combinations using draught/draft with which most of you will be familiar:

draught horse: a horse used to draw a plow or the like

draught/draft beer: beer which is drawn from the cask.  Of course, today, some bottled beers are called draft, but this is apparently the marketers' attempts to make consumers believe that these beers taste just like beer from a keg or cask.  Whether they do taste like true draft beer is debatable.

We hope we have drawn (or perhaps dragged!) you into the discussion of draught.  It's a bit drafty in here, so we are off to put another log on the fire.

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