Lauren Krueger & Matthew David Brozik

When is a table not a table?

In Definally on September 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Janine S. asked, “When you want to put off a topic of discussion, do you shelve it or table it?” And then Robert B. asked, “Don’t you bring up a topic for discussion by putting it on the table?”

Yes, yes, and yes.

Imagine a room with a table and a bookshelf. You sit at the table… with Janine and Robert. Robert is hungry and suggests ordering a pizza. Robert has thus put the idea of a pizza on the table.

Janine isn’t hungry, though; Janine is angry: Robert hasn’t paid his share of the rent for the room. Janine demands that the topic of ordering a pizza be tabled.

“But it’s already tabled,” Robert counters. “I put it on the table.”

“No,” Janine insists, “tabled, as in… um, taken off the table. You know what, let’s just shelve it.” So the topic of ordering a pizza moves from the table to the shelf. Which only makes sense, since a shelf is where you store things—to be removed (from the shelf) and (re)considered later, if ever. The table, on the other hand, is where you put the things you want to consider now.

So what’s this about “tabling” something you don’t want to think about now? Or: When is a table a shelf?

As is often the case, to solve this riddle we need to look back in time. We must ask, “Whence table?” The word, that is. Not the item. Tables and table-like structures have been around forever. The word “table,” though, has been around since medieval times, when it came to mean the piece of furniture (as the Old English tabule… which became the Old French table). Before then, however, the Latin tabula meant “tablet” or “list.” That is: tablet, like a writing pad; list, as in a “To do” list. As in: Put this topic on our list of things to consider later.

Table(t) it, in other words.


Now, about that pizza….


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