LINGUIST List 8.455

Sat Apr 5 1997

Sum: Ivory tower

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Misha Becker, ivory tower

Message 1: ivory tower

Date: Thu, 3 Apr 1997 00:12:04 -0800
From: Misha Becker <>
Subject: ivory tower

I recently asked about the origins of the term 'ivory tower' referring to
academia and whether it always had a negative connotation. I thank the
following people for responding:

Marc Picard <>
Victoria Fromkin <>
Marianne Ajana <>
Israel Cohen <>
Robert A. Stewart <>
Claudia Plaimauer <>
Katrin Lehmann <Katrin.LehmannUni-Koeln.DE>
and Robert Stockwell (UCLA)

The following references were suggested or cited:

William and Mary Morris: _Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins_
Harper & Row Publ., 1977
Random House Online 1992
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1981)

The term 'ivory tower' seems to come from the French 'tour d'ivoire',
coined by the French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve
(1804-69) in 1837 to characterize the French poet, novelist and
dramatist Alfred Victor de Vigny (1797-1863), who apparently led a
very isolated life. Sainte-Beuve's use of the term in describing de
Vigny was meant in a positive way. The term entered the English
language around the beginning of this century.

Here is a modern English definition:
i'vory tow'er n.
1. a place or situation remote from worldly or practical affairs:
 the university as an ivory tower.
2. an attitude of aloofness from or disdain or disregard for worldly
 or practical affairs.
(from Random House 1992)

Some further ideas about how the term came about:

"[In the translation from French to English] you have an initial
language misunderstanding for 'tower', which from ancient times has
carried certain phallic and sexual connotations. Now couple this with
the symbolism of strength, purity and virginity connected with ivory
(the elephant's tusk) and the elephant, and it becomes easy to see why
this coinage stuck in the imagination. Why it has been so persistently
used both by academics and non-academics alike - as a part of myth
building surrounding academia. The aloofness of academia has often
elicited scornful comments from lay people, sometimes warranted, which
accounts for the disparaging connotations connected with this phrase."

"Unsatisfactorily enough, [the term 'ivory tower'] was "a common
phrase in literary circles of [de Vigney's] time." Nothing about
academe, or about the original allusion either. I mean, why ivory? I
can imagine several associations, e.g. the white rook in chess, white
for purity and unworldliness, ivory tower/Ivy League/ivory-covered
buildings, etc."

Many people also noticed the similarity between 'ivory' and 'ivy' as
in Ivy League, or ivied walls/towers.

In Hebrew, the term for 'ivory tower' is lit. 'tooth tower' (migdal
shen), and the expression for fantasies, or 'castles in the air' is
lit. 'a flying tower' (mem-gimel-dalet-lamed peh-oh-resh-het migdal
porakh). This expression is influenced by an older term for
'nonsense', which in turn may have been influenced by a term meaning
'holy cream'.

Finally, it was noted that:
"The ivory tower is mentioned in the song of songs 7,4."

So the original use (if we take Sainte-Beuve's) of the term probably
did not carry a negative meaning, and it is not clear when the term
took on its pejorative sense (probably not long after it was coined?),
or exactly when it came to refer to academia as a particular
"isolated" group, unless this meaning was implicit from the beginning
through its reference to de Vigney.

Thanks again to everyone who responded!

Misha Becker
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