September 02, 2005

After dinner with those constitutional ladies in Iraq

There's an odd phrase in today's NYT story by Dexter Filkins "Ex-Rebel Kurd Savoring Victory in Iraq's Politics":

The old Kurdish guerrilla leader is savoring his most recent victory, won not on the field of battle but in the arid drawing rooms of Baghdad's constitutional convention.

I think of "drawing room" as an old-fashioned or regional name for certain rooms in private houses otherwise known as "living rooms" or "parlors". Am I missing a meaning, or is Filkins using the term in an odd way?

The OED offers some additional meanings related to Victorian-era sexual segregation, railroad cars and the presentation of ladies at court:

1. a. orig. A room to withdraw to, a private chamber attached to a more public room (see WITHDRAWING-ROOM); now, a room reserved for the reception of company, and to which the ladies withdraw from the dining-room after dinner.
b. The company assembled in a drawing-room.
c. U.S. Formerly, a section or carriage of a railway-train more luxurious or more private than usual. Also attrib.

2. A levee held in a drawing-room; a formal reception by a king, queen, or person of rank; that at which ladies are ‘presented’ at court.

But none of these offer any direct help in interpreting Filkins' phrase.

The American Heritage Dictionaries doesn't help either, defining drawing room as

1. A large room in which guests are entertained. 2. A ceremonial reception. 3. A large private room on a railroad sleeping car.

The literal meanings in Merriam-Webster's 3rd International are also no help:

1 a archaic : a room to which one may retire for privacy or rest : CLOSET; especially : one adjacent to public apartments b obsolete : a room or apartment forming a private part of the suite of a person (as a king) living in state and being often the setting of various informal activities or gatherings c : a more or less formal reception room (as in a home or hotel); especially : the room to which ladies withdraw from the dining room — compare PARLOR, SITTING ROOM d : a private room on a railroad passenger car with three berths and an enclosed toilet
2 : a formal or ceremonial reception; especially : one that is an official function of a royal court *made her curtsy at the queen's last drawing room*

Current uses on the web suggest that "drawing room" is the preferred term in South Asian English (and maybe in some other places) for a private home's big room for socializing:

Neha also warns that while there may be no major conflicts, one should be prepared for unusual stuff like someone wanting to play cricket in the drawing room at three a.m while someone else wants to sleep. [Deccan Herald (link)]
In a drawing room almost the first question is, "What’s happening?" [The Asian Age, Karachi (link)]

But as far as I can tell from the news stories, the official meetings to discuss the Iraqi draft constitution have not been held in private homes, nor in railroad cars, nor in royal salons for presenting ladies, but rather in the "convention center" in Baghdad's Green Zone. For instance, an 8/28/2005 LA Times article says that

Inside the Baghdad Convention Center, where negotiations took place Saturday morning and afternoon, Shiite and Sunni Arab leaders conferred amicably, despite the apparent deadlock.

By now I imagine that you're sputtering "but it's a metaphor, you dope!" And the OED even tells us that "drawing room" can be

[u]sed allusively to qualify a version of a story, etc., fitted by its observance of the proprieties for the society of the drawing-room.

Likewise, Merriam-Webster offers

3 b drawing rooms plural : people of substance and position accustomed to formal living : polite society *the report of her elopement shocked the drawing rooms*

Why were the drawing rooms in particular the symbol of polite society? According to 19th-century dining etiquette for the upper classes,

It was customary for the hostess and ladies to retire to the adjoining drawing room at the end of the meal leaving the men to their own discussions and to drink and smoke. Later in the evening the men would rejoin the ladies in the drawing room for conversation and card games and tea would be dispensed.

So Filkins means to tell us that battle is to constitutional convention as men drinking and smoking after dinner is to women waiting for them in the drawing room. OK, I'm glad that's cleared up.

Now an exercise for the reader: why are those drawing rooms arid?

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 2, 2005 03:32 PM