EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Bill Long 12/7/05
A Colorful Word
I decided to do a little research on this word today when reading a legal case from 1874 which said: "the defendant gave directions that the color of the lining [of a carriage] should be drab." Having been accustomed to see the word drab as an adjective, I was at first arrested by its use as a noun. We don't use the word "drab" much anymore, and when we do we normally use it in three connections: with "room," or "house," or "clothes" to express something cheerless and unattractive. For example, one might say, "she looked very Dickensian dressed in drab clothes--which was highly unusual for Palm Springs." Or, synonymously with "dark," "have you ever walked from the bright sunshine into a dark and drab house?" Or, "Ask Martha. Transforming a ho-hum lampshade will beautify a dull, drab room." Indeed, Martha Stewart seems to be an antitype of drab in our culture today, despite having spent a few months in drab prison surroundings. But the word is richer than the meaning of "dull; wanting brightness or color," which has been attested for about 125 years (From 1892: "The lives of the people..are dull and drab; a round of work with but little amusement"). To understand its full scope we must recognized that its two primary meanings come from two different words--one meaning a prostitute and one meaning a cloth covering.
One Kind of Drab
The OED outdoes itself in suggesting synonymns for drab: "dirty and untidy woman; a slut; slattern; harlot; prostitute; strumpet." I think we get the picture. No one knows precisely the origin of this use of drab, though the dictionary says it was "evidently" connected with the Irish drabog or the Gaelic drabag, meaning a dirty female or slattern. Usages go back to 1515 with a 1530 work by John Lord Berners providing: "And than shall the drabbe, my doughter, be mured up in a stone wall." Shakespeare got into the act with his characteristic compressed language in Macbeth: "Birth-strangled Babe/ Ditch-deliver'd by a Drab." Edward Cocker's 1675 book on Morals advised us to flee "Drink, Dice and Drabs, three dangerous Dees." And, George Eliot could say in Middlemarch, "Who ended by living up an entry with a drab and six children for their establishment.
We know the phrase dribs and drabs, to mean "a small or petty sum of money," and an 1828 dictionary of regional usage calls drab "a small debt. 'He's gain away for good, and he's left some drabs.'" Actually, the phrase "by dribs and drabs" seems to be making a comeback in our day, after having lain dormant for most of the last 1 1/2 centuries. It is, however, only coming back in dribs and drabs.
Thus the verb "to drab" means to associate with harlots, as in Hamlet: "Drinking, fencing, swearing, Quarelling, drabbing." In a scathing sermon the 17th century Anglican Bishop Miles Smith could say, "He is the true gentleman now adayes, that can drinke and drab it best." And, the word comes into the 19th century in this quotation from Blackwoods's Magazine, "He would have drunken and diced, drabbed and hunted." As we saw previously, the triad of "dicing, drinking and drabbing" were condemned by moralists, while a most memorable phrase, not attested on the Internet (but now it is there!) is the 1632 phrase to describe a person: "a most insatiate drabber."
Drab, Definition 2
Drab's other meaning is as a synonym of the French drap, meaning "cloth" or "linen" or "woollen cloth of the natural undyed color." Hence we see how something drap or drab could gradually have become associated with a color such as "rose, pink, salmon, etc." The seventeenth century attests "Drap-da-Berry" as "a kind of woollen cloth coming from Berry in France." "The Colours of Gingelline, Grideline, Deroy, Dederado, Droppe du Berry." The London Gazette in 1681 could speak of "Stolen--a Drabdeberry Riding Coat," and an attestation of the durability of this fabric comes from Congreve in 1700: "Fools never wear out...they are such drap de Berri things!"
But, as indicated above, by the 18th century, the word signifying the origin in France or material itself could become the color of the material. Drab came to mean "of a dull light-brown or yellowish-brown." A 1775 definition connects drab with clothes and says, "Drab, belonging to a gradation of plain colours betwixt a white and a dark brown." In our world in 2005 we would say that this distinction is a pretty big one, but we get a pretty clear indication of the color of something drab. A drab cloth is a "full and undied cloth." Charles Dickens could say, "He wore wide drab trousers." An 1843 quotation spoke of the "drab colored men of Pennsylavania, while the Saturday Review, only 22 years later, spoke of "Male Quakers [who] have...discarded broadbrimmed hats and drab breeches." Maybe drab was no longer "in" in the highly fashion-conscious Quaker community, but ceasing to wear drab was to no avail. Indeed, "Quaker drab" is still a color recognized on the spectrum, not far from "light mouse gray." Wouldn't it be wonderful to study the history of colors and the names given them?
From Drab to Drape
Even though the word "drape" has one or two attestations before the 19th century, by 1900 it could be used to indicate what we all know as the hanging curtains in the house. The word drapery goes back to the 14th century, and by the 17th century the usage was frequent. From 1622: "The Draperies of this Kingdome are termed Old and New. By the Old; are understood Broad Clothes, Bayes and Kersies; By the New; Perpetuanoes, Serges, Sayes, and other Manufactures of Wooll." But the shortening of the word drapery to drape came about around 1900 only in America and not Britain thanks to the, drum roll, Montgomery Ward Catalogue. From their 1895 catalogue: "Drapery Silk..Suitable for throws, sash curtains, mantle drapes." And, once Montgomery Ward got into the act, Sears had to keep up. From the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue of 1908: "A strong, well made Nottingham Lace Curain,..one of the most stylish and attractive drapes one could possibly desire for the parlor window."
Thus, while drab went from a woollen cloth to the color represented by that cloth to an adjective describing a colorless or dull place or garment, the word drape drew more of its strength from the word drapery and maintained its meaning as something hanging in various rooms of the house. But I hope you agree that its rich history gives the word more color than we thought we might ever see in it.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long