cupboards and closets

I've got a few posts brewing in my head that require me to (a) take my camera out with me and (b) remember to take pictures of the relevant things when I get to them. So far, I've only managed (a), which, it must be admitted, is pretty pointless without (b). But there's a lot of pointless activity in my life at the moment, like an afternoon investigating new textbooks after being told that mine couldn't be ordered--only to discover that the bookshop already had the books in stock, they just looked them up the wrong way. And waiting for the phone and internet to be re-connected after my neighbo(u)r told the people working on our house that the wires at the front of the building were extraneous and should be removed. And investigating and correcting the recent mistaken change to my tax code which left me paying three times as much as I owed this month. It's the camera one that really irks me though, since it's the only one I must blame myself for.

So with those plans thwarted, I have clicked onto a random post in my 'to be posted about' mailbox and found JHM, writing:
I've been on an Agatha Christie binge of late, and have subsequently been up to my eyeballs in potential questions on BrE. Seeing as these stories were written between the 30s and the 70s, however, it becomes complicated from your vantage, because even trying to compare fifty-year-old AmE usage to modern AmE would present problems.

Even so, one usage that seems fairly consistent over time, and that tends to confuse me, is the BrE use of "cupboard." I see that you've covered this to some degree, but I still have a few questions. [...] My word for the small, doored-off areas either hanging from the ceiling or under a [ed: AmE] countertop is cupboard (which I pronounce /cubbard/, making it a further annoyance when I see the word spelt, as the two seem not to match at all, and besides which, my "cups" usually hang from hooks below the cupboard, and are one of the few items not to be found inside one). So, first minor question is whether BrE by and large has the same pronunciation.

Now, it seems to me that BrE never seems to use closet, but prefers cupboard for just about anything that has a door. In my case, a cupboard is never something in which a corpse (at least one still in one piece) could be either found or put, but this seems commonplace in my stories. What are the bounds of the BrE cupboard, when does closet become more likely, and is all of this an artifact (ed: BrE artefact) of obsolete usage?
First, let me recommend that people who haven't read it click on the link to get to the post on (BrE) Welsh dresser, since it answers some questions. It's one of those sad posts from the beginning of the blog that would have received many more comments had I had readers at the time. Please feel free to comment on it there--it's never too late to comment on this blog's posts and it's one of those posts that gets a lot of hits via search engines, so your comment may help someone nice. Or possibly someone nasty. But if you help someone nasty, you're still being nice. Unless you're aiding and abetting in something nasty, that is. And I don't think anyone could hold you accountable and take away your niceness badge if your comment happens to lead to the Great Welsh Dresser Robbery of 2011 or the exploits of the Countertop Ripper in 2015.

I expect JHM that your rendition/rendering of the pronunciation is a bit misleading in terms of the second vowel. Since the stress is on the first syllable, most people would pronounce it with schwa-type sound. So, it sounds more like the word bird than bard. Like you, the British do not say 'cup-board', so the word is pronounced similarly in AmE and BrE--except for the way in which you'd expect it to differ: in what is done with an /r/ after a vowel.

On the meaning, one of the reasons why one doesn't hear closet much in BrE is because there just aren't many of them. Our current (three-bedroom) home has none. Our last (two-bedroom home) had none. My first (one-bedroom) home here had none. Instead, people generally keep their clothes in free-standing wardrobes, which move from house to house with them. (I have met/needed this beast only once in my dozen or so past American abodes.) Most Americans will be familiar with the furniture sense of the word just from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--but I'm not sure that all reading the book would recogni{s/z}e that the wardrobe isn't a closet. Closets are becoming more popular in the UK in new-build/remodel(l)ed homes.

But that aside, BrE has held on to other meanings of closet to a greater degree/longer than AmE has. The original meaning was 'a private room' and this has been extended in various ways to refer to small rooms in general or small rooms of particular types. The OED tells me that this meaning is (or was when that entry was written) common in the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, where bed-closet means 'a small bedroom'. That meaning seems to have gone by the wayside in AmE, probably because there are so many storage-closets there. So, the small rooms in American homes are for storage, the word for small rooms closet is applied to them, there are no smaller rooms in the homes, so it's odd to refer to bigger rooms as closets too, and eventually people no longer reali{s/z}e that they could be using the word for other types of rooms. At least, that looks like a likely progression of events.

This has some knock-on effects idiom-wise. A skeleton in the closet (which goes back at least to the 19th century in BrE) transmogrifies into a skeleton in the cupboard in modern BrE, while it stays in the closet in AmE. On the other hand, (orig. AmE) come out of/be in the closet (as gay, etc.) has been imported directly into BrE. One can find a few instances of come out of the cupboard or come out of the wardrobe (as gay) on UK websites but they're few and far between. It's possible, though, that the imagery for the two is not quite the same in AmE and BrE minds. Do Americans imagine the closet-dweller as hunched among hangers and clothes and shoes and British people imagine them as just being in a small, private room? I imagine that the range of imaginings on an individual level vary a lot no matter where one lives.

Some types of closets in AmE are cupboards in BrE (or vice versa), such as a broom closet/cupboard. But this discussion reminds me that RMWG (another of my frequent, initial[l]ed correspondents) wrote a long time ago:
My American colleague is having problems with the concept of airing cupboards. I have done my best to explain, but as an American who presumably now has experience of them, perhaps you could do better.
Airing cupboards are called the same thing in the US, there are just far fewer of them. I got to know them in old houses in New England. More Americans would have a (non-airing) linen closet, which in BrE would be a linen cupboard.

On our recent trip to the US, Better Half didn't know what I meant when I said that I wanted to give a donation to the local food closet, which is run by a friend of our family. Food closet is essentially the same as (orig. AmE) food bank, the term that has come to be used in the UK (and is still used in the US too). I read with some surprise the Swindon Food Bank's claim that food banks are a 'ground-breaking concept'--since they've been around for decades in the US. But the first one in the UK was founded only in 1999.

Of course, closet is also found in the BrE term water closet, but please go back here to discuss that.

Back to JHM, he followed up his first email with:
[...] my reading has introduced me to the boxroom which, aside from their being convenient places to try to hide potentially incriminating evidence, seem to answer to an American's description of a closet. Is boxroom still in use? is it readily recognizable, if not commonplace?
I've never come across box(-)room in the wild, and the OED defines it only as 'a room for storing boxes, trunks, etc.'. It looks like it has developed in meaning a little bit, judging from this exchange on Gumtree:
> Hi, I'm currently looking for a place to live in London, and I'm simply wondering what a "box room" is?
very small room often with no window.
or it can simply mean a very small single room, where you can just [s]queeze a bed & small desk or bedside table in - I'd ask about the window for each property - as I've never looked at a box room that didn't have a window personally, but I can see how in Cities that could apply! - I expect people try to rent out broom/laundry cupboards as commutor [sic] "bedpods"
studio flat for £180 per week in zone 1 or 2 Laughing [link added for clarification--ed.]
In sum, I'd have to say that it's not a closet in the AmE sense and is not used all that much for storage rooms these days. Better Half adds that he gets the connotation of 'no windows' with box room, and that the adjective boxy is applied to rooms to mean that there's no room to swing a cat. (Not that good-conscienced, vegetarian BH has ever tried the cat-swinging bit.) To my AmE ears, a boxy room would just be one that has only 90-degree angles and probably walls of a uniform size.

Since we were corresponding at Thanksgiving time last year, JHM added:
As a seasonal bonus question, I wonder if you could discuss the use of the word larder in BrE [...]. I recognize the word, but don't have any idea how I might use it. There is the pantry, a small closet for dry goods, and the aforementioned cupboard, and the refrigerator (which seems to me what is referred to by larder in my stories. My grandfather would have used an ice box before refrigerators, but larder brings to my mind images of a cave, or walk-in refrigerator (perhaps since it sounds a bit like lair, I couldn't say). Does modern BrE have larders? What are they?
As the name hints at, larders were originally for storing bacon or other meats in the pre-refrigeration days. It is still used by extension for a large cupboard where food is stored. So, some old homes may have larders, which should be cooler than the rest of the house. (E.g. they may be on a side of the house that gets no sun or may have stone or porcelain parts to help keep the temperature down.) There's some information on BrE dialectal terms for larder in this Wikipedia entry. These days, one hears it in contexts like raid the larder, used like raid the refrigerator to mean something like 'get snacks'.

AmE ice box (or icebox) is still sometimes heard, having shifted its meaning from a literal 'box with ice' to 'refrigerator'. It's what my grandparents usually called the fridge. In some AmE dialects ice chest is used--though for many people that would refer to an insulated (orig. AmE) cooler (BrE: cold/cool box and these days one often gets cool bags--which reminds me, I need to get one. How about this one?). I can't imagine that there are many people under 60 years old using these terms for refrigerators--but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. One does still see/hear it in the names of certain sweet recipes.

As a cultural aside, Americans might wonder how the British live without built-in storage space. (UK houses also rarely have basements and residents may not have much--or any--access to an attic.) The answer is simple: they generally keep less stuff. I'm always reminded of this when I visit the US and see the seasonal stuff that a lot of people decorate their homes with. During our August visit, the shops there were already full of Hallowe'en (BrE) tat like this and plenty of people in my hometown decorate their porches with an ever-changing display of seasonal flags or banners like these. Some have special sets of china or linens for Christmas as well as decorations for every room and the great outdoors. One just doesn't see all this much in the UK. Where would you put it when it's out of season? Rather than sticking something that has outlived its usefulness or stylishness into a cupboard, closet or attic, a lot of UK residents would drop it by the nearest (or dearest-to-them) (BrE) charity shop/(AmE) thrift store. People often brought in single items or small bags of things to the shop where I used to work and we keep a constant 'Oxfam bag' going in the house--whereas I think Americans usually do their charity-giving after bigger clear-outs--often just before moving (house) or after dying (in which case they get out of doing most of the packing themselves). I must admit that some gifts I've received from some Americans (who do not appreciate that I have nowhere to put that cute/funny/weird thing that made them think of me--our place is smaller than a single floor of their three-stor(e)y+basement+garage houses) have gone straight to the charity shop. But not yours, of course. I cherish that. It is just so really, really extra cute and weird.


  1. When we moved back to the US after two years in the UK, my oldest son was 3. He knew all kinds of words, but he had no idea what to call a closet. He settled on "that place with all the hangers."

  2. Funnily enough I was cleaning out the closet under my staircase this morning, which made me think of Harry Potter and his "cupboard under the stairs" (even in the AmE version).

    But now you've got me wondering what it is that secretly-gay people are supposed to be doing in those closets... wearing out-of-season clothes and playing Scrabble in the dark?

  3. So, [the second syllable of "cupboard"] sounds more like the word bird than bard."

    For AmE speakers, maybe. For most BrE speakers, it probably doesn't sound much like either. Material for another post?

  4. "Food closet" is a new one on me. "Food pantry" is the only synonym I know for "food bank", to the extent that I had not noticed the pleonasm until I started to write the comment. I guess it goes along with "soup kitchen", a place where soup (normally manufactured elsewhere) is served gratis to the poor and homeless. There is something odd about that phrase too.

    1. Soup kitchens, which were a major component of American life in the depression, served watered down soup made from what ever the charitable organization could get that day or week. Serving manufactured soup wasn't an option, to expensive. Also as the place didn't come with lodging or even often a place to sit it literally was just a kitchen and a window or doorway out of which the soup was served.

  5. You might be able to get a wardrobe, or perhaps a pantry in Zones 1 and 2 for £180 a month. Bijou!

  6. Great post, Lynne...
    Oh, those flags! I'm from the UK, living in a small town in California, and saw them for sale in a gardening store today. Why, oh why, do people need seasonal flags outside their houses?

    Yes, I've realize I keep hold of more stuff now that we have more storage space.I'm sure I'll live to regret it!

    As a Brit, I would say cubbd. No particular vowel for the second syllable.

  7. Not all British English wardrobes are free-standing. My parents bought their present house new back in the 1970s and it came with built-in places for hanging clothes in the two main bedrooms, both referred to then and now as wardrobes.

  8. As an Australian, I don't think I really use the word "closet", except for "coming out of the", and maybe "closeted" if two people are having a secret meeting in a small room.

    Cupboards are the things in the kitchen or bathroom - might also have them in the garage or shed.

    I keep my clothes in a wardrobe. If it is fixed storage in the bedroom, it is a "built in wardrobe" (or just a "built in"), and a real-estate ad is likely to specifically mention it ("two bedrooms with built-ins"). If it is really big I think it becomes a "walk in robe" (in real-estate-ad-speak).

    Oh, I have just realised - I do keep my sheets and towels (plus a lot of surplus junk) in the "linen closet". This is a relatively shallow, floor-to-ceiling cupboard in the hall. But I'm not sure if this is standard terminology, or just a family quirk.

  9. I'm not sure I understand why a wardrobe isn't a closet. Is that just because a closet is always built-in? As Harriet says, we call those built-in 'robes. Or is a closet always big enough to walk in to (walk-in robe)?

  10. I'm surprised you didn't mention that free-standing piece of furniture, the armoire (which used to hold clothes, and now usually holds a tv).

  11. Lynne, you mentioned the cat swinging with the customary disclaimer about feline cruely, but I have always understood the cat in question to be a cat o' nine tails although the curious thing is that there is a note in the wikipedia article saying the phrase pre-dates the use of the whip

  12. If everyone you know has walk-in closets, your friends are a lot richer than mine are.

    We decorate for Halloween, but mostly with fresh pumpkins. So only Christmas decorations need to be kept from year to year.

    So far as I know, "armoire" is a synonym for "wardrobe." Usually they have both a hanging area and a few small drawers, all hidden behind doors. But they're rare, and usually antique.

    Most homes that I've been in (I live in California) have closets that you could get yourself into, but they're certainly not "walk-in." More like a floor to ceiling cupboard (pronounced cubberd), with a shelf or two above a hanging bar. But I would not call it a closet if it were not built-in.

    I tend to envision those poor secretly-gay people hiding in the dark under the hanging clothes.

  13. As a (southern) BrE speaker I can't think of anything I'd call a closet. The doored off alcoves for storing clothes in bedrooms I'd call (built-in) wardrobes. Similar things in other rooms are cupboards.

    I've not encountered the small room sense of the word. Perhaps it's a Northern thing, as you say. It reminds me of when BBC children's TV was presented by Philip Schofield sat in a tiny room behind a mixing desk, the room was refered to as the "broom cupboard".

  14. There's nothing I would call a closet, either - it's strictly an American term to me. I might say that something is 'closeted away', meaning hidden, though. And I've always imagined secretive gays in wardrobes with all the clothes!

    On 'cupboard', I wouldn't say it like 'bird' - I would say it 'bud'.

    Boxrooms I have only come across in Enid Blyton stories and I still have no idea what they are!

  15. Built in wardrobes are also called fitted wardrobes.

    And I totally say box room - most of the North London 1930's semis we looked at had two bedrooms and a box room.

  16. Albany, NY, USA: I have a closet (built into the house), but it's too small. So I have this big piece of furniture, which is the armoire, which BTW does NOT have a TV. A wardrobe, besides being the clothes people wear, is a soft-lined thing to hold clothes not dissimilar to an armoire.
    Oh, and to your first point: if I misfile my CDs (numbering over 1500), I can't find them either.

  17. Eimear on the "Welsh dresser" post has mentioned that cupboards are called "presses" in Ireland. Similarly, an airing cupboard is a "hot press".

    I've only come across the word "larder" in Just William or Enid Blyton stories. I don't know how they would differ from pantries, which I've only physically seen in Australia, where housing spreads out to American dimensions.

    And, Lynne, if you're calling a pantry a "small closet" then either your pantry is very small or your closet is bigger than I imagined: not so much a built-in wardrobe as a walk-in wardrobe?

  18. My Northern Ireland husband refers to the airing-cupboard as the hot press; I have a piece of furniture known as a clothes press, which has drawers below and open-fronted shelves behind a door above.

    Definitely a fitted wardrobe for this Englishwoman - like others, I only know closet as an American word (and have always imagined gay people hiding in the wardrobe with the clothes hangers!).

    Pantries were and are very common in houses built before the 2nd world war; certainly all the houses I grew up in - built pre-war - had them. I just wish my 1930s flat did! A walk-in cupboard with shelves where non-perishable foodstuffs can be stored. My parents also have what's called a meatsafe in the back porch (colder than the kitchen, but not as cold as the fridge), a cupboard with a wire mesh door (anti-fly) where food can be left to cool and (these days) to thaw from the deep freeze (my mother's generation-speak for freezer - they also call it a washing-up machine rather than a dishwasher).

    And to me a boxroom is an attic room, designed for the storage of trunks, suitcases and similar.

  19. Icebox. I was just having a conversation about that one the other day. My grandparents (all from the midwest) all used it, and I grew up with it for sure. Certainly I used it as a child, but not anymore. My aunt does make icebox cake though.

  20. Scottish born and bred, never heard of "bed-closet" that I can remember; I assume it must be a generational thing there.

    I always imagine gay people coming out of the closet (which I see as a wardrobe) with their hands held high, pumping the air in pride while the crowd cheers.

    A boxroom to me, I think, is just like BH's view of it, a small windowless room used for storing stuff, but usually a bedroom that's not being used as one. My impression of it is that it's not common these days. And I think pantry and larder are, again for me, pretty much synonyms for the cupboard where non-perishable food items are stored.

  21. As a native Californian, I've always had built-in "cabinets" in my kitchens and bathrooms. I hear "cupboard" from my east-coast and mid-west relatives, but it's not commonly used here. A free standing piece of furniture with doors usually has some other name, such as china cabinet, armoire, etc.

    We also have a built-in linen closet near the bathroom, a coat closet near the front door, a broom closet in the kitchen, etc. Each of these is distinguished by location or layout. A tall skinny cabinet with no shelves has to be a broom closet, though you might not know what it is until you open the door. Likewise, a door near a bathroom, behind which you find only shelves, must be a linen closet.

  22. What confuses my English colleagues is when I pronounce "cuphoard" in Scottish English, in which it sounds like "covered".

  23. the deep freeze (my mother's generation-speak for freezer)

    A "deep-freeze" for me is a chest freezer, as opposed to the lower half of a fridge-freezer (or the left half of an "American-style" fridge-freezer).

    The OED has no citations after 1789 for "bed-closet", so I think it went out with the French Revolution. Never heard of such a thing, nor any more general "closet=small room" sense, in Ireland.

    Plenty of "boxrooms" in Ireland; the Celtic Tiger-era apartment blocks are often 2-bedroom, one of which is a double and the other a boxroom. They have a window, but possibly only a skylight. Never seen a bedroom with no window at all; sounds illegal to me.

  24. First of all, I completely blanked on the word 'armoire'. It's just such a rare piece of furniture in the US as opposed in the UK, so you hear the term 'wardrobe' here much more often than you hear 'armoire' there.

    Built-in wardrobes are, in my experience, built into/onto an existing wall (i.e. making an existing room smaller), rather than being rooms of their own--but it seems that that's also what people with new houses are calling their walk-in closets too--I don't know anyone with a new house!

    So, a built-in wardrobe of the type that I know of here is different from a typical American closet in that they are rather shallow--i.e. not very walk-in-able. Not every American closet is walk-in-able, but they are prototypically so.

  25. I am a native Californian. When we were looking for a house back in 1992, eventually buying the one we now live in, I saw listings for houses with "extra" rooms. I asked our real estate agent about that terminology, and she said it was not allowed to call a room a bedroom in a real estate listing unless it had a built-in closet. I didn't ask about windows, but I have never seen a bedroom without a window. Closets are not assumed to be large enough to fully walk into unless they are called walk-in closets.
    We also have cabinets in the kitchen, and in a storage room, but I would understand the meaning if someone called them cupboards.
    What seems to be called a box room in Britian we could call a storage room.
    The house I grew up in, built in 1903, had what my parents called a "cooler." It was a built-in cabinet in the kitchen, about six feet tall, on the northwest side, with screened ventilation openings to the outside at the top and bottom. The shelves were all made of wood and slatted for air circulation. It was cool enough for us to keep our butter there. It sounds like what you're calling a larder, though it definately wasn't walk-in. I've only heard the word larder used in the combination "Mormon larder," probably because the LDS church encourages its members to store up several month's supply of food, and, I believe, uses the term larder for such storage.

  26. As a Midwesterner, I'm also more familiar with the term "food pantry," rather than bank or closet.

    Closets have seemingly been standard in American houses since the 19th Century. It's not unusual to find them in Victorian houses, and every bungalow I've ever been in has had closets. It's interesting that built-in closets are a rather recent phenomenon in the UK.

    When I was little we briefly lived in a house built in the 1940's that had wardrobe-style closets. They consisted of two drawers built into the wall with a small space above (enclosed by double-doors) where you could hang clothes.

  27. @Dan

    In general, those secretly-gay people were wearing the clothes that they couldn't or wouldn't wear in public. This would stereotypically have been female clothing (drag) but could also refer to leather for that subculture. The archetypical story was of a wife opening the closet door and finding her husband dressed up in her clothes.

    In the '80s, the apparel included pastel sweaters and headbands.
    Here in Canada, I have not heard "box room" used except for one house we had where my (BrE) mother used it for a small room accessed from a door in the one bedroom closet which we used for storing Christmas ornaments and off-season clothing. I would tend to use "storage room" for such a place, myself.

    In my mind, closets start at floor level and come up to at least head height, so that one could stand in them, at least in theory. Anything smaller or situated above the floor is a cupboard or cabinet.

    We did have a small space under the stairs of one house which started at about 5 feet at the door end. We always called it the "cubby-hole". Come to think of it, that was the same house that had the box room. It was very strangely built.

  28. I always thought "coming out of the closet" had something to do with the clothes and gay men's stereotypical love of fashion.

    As a born and bred Minnesotan, I'd never heard of a food pantry or closet for charity. I've definitely heard of a food bank, but we normally say food shelf...though of course there are usually many shelves.

  29. @dbanoff: I'm also a native Californian, and I've seen the type cooler you describe called a "California cooler," so it may not be common elsewhere. I'm told my grandmother's house had one, before they remodeled to install indoor plumbing.

    I grew up preferring "cupboard" to "cabinet." Now I use them both. My dishes are in the cupboard, but I might shop for new cabinets.

    "Pantry" used to imply a separate room, but currently it seems to refer to a type of cabinet.

    You might hear about a "food bank," or a "food closet." I'd understand "food pantry," although I probably wouldn't use it.

  30. I've never heard of a food bank or food pantry or any of those variants.

    We used to have a walk-in larder in a house when I was little, it was just a cool room lined with shelves. I think we used 'larder' interchangeably with 'pantry'. When we moved out of that house we spent a few months living in a friend's boxroom (which I would make one word, as is the wont of my generation) so the term is quite familiar to me and I would use it to describe a poky single bedroom/room.

    Apart from the idionatic "coming out of.." sense, I've only ever heard 'closet' in AmE contexts and assumed it referred specifically to wardrobes, probably built-in. Hadn't picked up on its use in the 'cupboard' sense. To me a cabinet is a free standing piece of furniture, probably with glass doors, usually used for displaying things such as fine china, or trophies.

    And I'm not sure if it's my peculiar reading/viewing habits, but I've heard 'icebox' quite a lot. Until I read these comments I actucally thought it was the general AmE term for fridge.

  31. My guess is the original commenter rendered the pronunciation as "cubbard" to parallel "Old Mother Hubbard". BTW, in my house a "Mother Hubbard's special" is when we order pizza because Mom hasn't gone grocery shopping in a while. This even though our food is in the pantry, not the cupboards, which is for dishes and which we mostly call cabinets.

    In the Tudor-era stuff I've been reading they're always talking about the Master of the Wardrobe, which seems to be an important post. Is that because a) clothing was a potent symbol of wealth and power, b) such intimate interaction with the monarch would naturally result in great influence, or c) it's a cushy job so whoever holds it must be a court favorite?

  32. Back in those days,the King's 'wardrobe' could include armor, livery, etc. The wardrobe could refer to a whole building, I believe. So yes, it was a big job!
    OED is more precise, but don't have access right now...

  33. The current UK phrase for 'being in the closet' is 'so far back in the wardrobe he's almost in Narnia'.

  34. I agree that Brits now would understand a 'closet' as the AmE term for a built-in wardrobe. In modern houses this will have a rail parallel with the wall, allowing one row of hangers: a deeper wardrobe with two parallel rails front-to-back would be a walk-in wardrobe, and anything bigger could be described as a dressing room. In large country houses it might have had a small bed where the gentleman could sleep off his excesses without disturbing her ladyship in the bedroom.

    Modern wardrobes as items of furniture will have a rail for the hangers - but in the antique wardrobes or armoires (which I visualise with shorter hanging space and deep drawers below) you will find clusters of hooks at the back - I suppose our forebears had fewer clothes to hang up!

    For me, the 'private room' origin of closet (not to be confused with the privy, also derived from private/privet!) is closest to the 'coming out' usage: we talk about people being closeted together in earnest conversation, excluding others, and perhaps gays had to be careful about bringing people into their confidence when it was difficult to 'come out'.

    There is a parallel with the use of cabinet - either a free-standing piece of good carpentry, made to hold glassware, curios, books, or a group of colleagues akin to the Senior Management Team, meeting in a 'cabinet'. Which is a term the French use for a room containing a loo and washbasin, adjoining a hotel room.

    We seem to be back to the Gentleman of the Wardrobe - a far mor intimate task was carried out by the Gentleman of the Privy Stool (and that doesn't refer to furniture...)

  35. I think some people here aren't quite clear about the difference between a closet and a built-in wardrobe. (At least as I understand things. I'm an American and have been living in Australia for several years. So my experience out of the US doesn't count for too much.)

    A closet.

    A built-in wardrobe.

    The key difference is that a closet really is a small room on the side of the main room, whereas a built-in wardrobe is something built within an existing room. Removing a closet would involve removing walls of the house.

    (Actually, I think most Americans would call the second picture above a closet, but they probably wouldn't think of it as a real closet -- they just wouldn't know what else to call it. I don't know if the same would go for commonwealthers and the other picture.)

    One of the most surprising things that has happened to me in Australia was when a friend asked me what, exactly, a closet is. I would have been no less surprised if he had asked me what, exactly, a door is.

    Last, I don't know what's up with the seasonal flags in suburban California. I don't remember them as a child, but they existed by the time I went back in the 90s. I still don't get why people have them.

  36. I think part of the long-standing UK resistance to adopting the US term "closet" for a wardrobe is that "water closet" for a lavatory was still in widespread use through the 1950s and probably into the 1960s. "Closet" just has too many unsavoury connotations.

    (Note also that the loo is still euphemistically called "the smallest room".)

    A boxroom or lumber room is a storage room -- where you keep your boxes or lumber (useless bulky stuff, not wooden planks) -- usually in the attic or at least on an upper floor out of the way. Boxrooms can be converted into cramped bedrooms, but that's not their purpose. The people who used "boxroom" to describe a small studio flat were speaking metaphorically, whether they knew it or not.

    For pantries and larders you have to go back to medieval times. The pantry was the bread store (from panis), and the larder was the meat store (from the practice of storing meat in lard). Eventually the pantry was the cool room for keeping bread, pies, cooked meats, etc., and the larder was the dry room for keeping meat, cheese, fruit, etc.

    Here's a good discussion of the two terms:

  37. I thought I'd posted the following last night evidently I hit the wrong button...

    I'm used to boxroom in two contexts. My parents used it to refer to the smallest bedroom in our (1930s built ex-council) house. At a rough guess the bed, a bookcase and very small wardrobe leave at most two square yards of floor space. Secondly at university the college had a box room on each floor for us to store our suitcases during term time.

    The discussions did remind me of this story about relative house sizes:

    The key statistic being that in the UK new houses have an average area of 76 square metres, in the USA 214 square metres. So no wonder we don't have space for closets.

  38. Great statistic, Shaun, thanks! I'll be using that in a lot of conversations, I'm sure!

  39. Box rooms are common in traditional (Victorian, let's say) flats in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which often have everything from large walk-in cupboards to very small windowless bedrooms to something behind a full-sized door which turns our tro be no more than a shallow bookcase (they just make use of odd corners of space and make the place look bigger I suppose). I've never been sure whether "box room" refers to a boxy room (small, interior, probably no window or maybe just a little one high up for ventilation), or a place where boxes and suitcases might be kept -- probably the former I suppose. They used to be rooms for maids in larger flats, and younger members of the family in poorer households.
    More generally, I think the question of storage space is very much part of the rural-urban difference in British lifestyles. I was born and brought up (or raised as we Brits say now) in the country (or countryside as we seem to have started calling it), but have lived in city flats for many years, and am very conscious of the way space is a precious and expensive commodity to the city-dweller, where you might have a right to use part of a communal basement or attic if you're lucky but nothing else. You do indeed have to make frequent visits to charity shops and organise your possessions as if you were on a houseboat. However, even modest and/or modern houses in semi-rural or suburban areas, houses meaning not flats but detached or semi-detcached with some kind of associated land, be it only a "pocket-handkerchief" garden, will have some kind of attic (actually I grew up calling it a loft) and probably a garage or garden shed.

  40. Re closet, I agree with barnoid and booktrash, it's not really part of my active vocab except in the metaphorical sense, and I don't have a clear mental image. Built-in wardrobes are only commonly found in modern houses where they may well be called closets, but I don't know. "Broom cupboard" is often a disparaging term for any ridiculously cramped or spartan room.

  41. Boxroom is perfectly meaningful to me (BrE) -- as a child our (chalet-style) house had several large eaves cupboards (does that make sense to the Americans?) that we referred to as boxrooms. Definitely no windows, or heating. In our case, no plaster on the walls (but not an essential feature for a boxroom in my view). In some cases not floored and/or without lighting (like lofts). But large enough to stand up in (otherwise they wouldn't be boxrooms, just cupboards). Used for storage (of boxes) because the space is no use for anything else.

    Modern houses don't have such wasted space so they have largely disappeared and most people use their lofts and/or their garages for storage (most people I know don't put cars in their garages any more).

  42. Aha! It suddenly occurred to me why those Tudor queens were always going into their closets to pray. Matthew 6:6 -- "But when you pray, go to your inner room..." (New American Bible) whereas "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet..." (King James Bible)

    It all makes sense now!

  43. I've never heard the phrase "eaves cupboards" but can work out what it means.

    After reading all this I can no longer say with any certainty whether "cupboard" or "cabinet" is my preferred word for the storage spaces in the kitchen where dishes and things are kept. I think it depends on context: cupboard for their purpose of holding materials, cabinet for their construction or possible removal/replacement.

  44. I love seeing the variety of responses here.

    I'm 48 and grew in up Calif with "icebox" -- however I did grow up partially with my maternal grandparents. I learnt "cupboard" for enclosed spaces in which one stores things in the kitchen, but "medicine cabinet" for the small cupboard in the bathroom, "linen closet" for sheets et al, "broom closet", and "closet" for the enclosed space in which one stores hanging clothes (which can be a standard closet or a walk-in closet).

    The bedroom closets I grew up with were half and half walk in closets with the floor of the closet at floor level and 3 level ones with deep drawers for heavy/awkward things at floor level, wide space for hanging things above (generally with sliding wooden doors or folding doors), and then deep cupboards for seasonal storage on top. The first were deep enough for floor-length dresses, the later were not. Both my mother and my g'parents houses had one of each type in separate bedrooms, but my mother had the lower drawers removed as she liked long dresses and wanted the extra height.

    I think of a pantry as a separate or semi-separate room or at least a deep floor-to-ceiling cupboard with a full-size door. My pantry now includes a huge chest freezer, the icebox, cupboards, shelves, a sink, the hot water heater, and the laundry appliances. My mother and g'parents' pantries were not completely separate but partially walled off ends of the kitchen where the washer/dryer also resided. My g'father did use "larder" sometimes, but in referring to the icebox rather than the pantry in general.


  45. We just re-did the kitchen and purchased new wall and base cabinets for storage, but I will ask my husband to "put this in the cupboard (pronounced cuh-brd)".

    To me, a wardrobe can be moved but a closet is part of the structure of a house. If the closet is 12-20" deep and between 3 and 6 feet wide with a bar to hang clothes hangers, it's just a closet. If you can actually walk into it, it's a walk-in closet.

    Graham Cobb - the space you describe, I would call an attic, or attic storage, or even walk in storage (if not actually directly under the roof).

    I think icebox is a generational thing, although I have been known to use it, and I'm under 40. I'm more likely to say "fridge" though.

  46. In the house I grew up in (a large old vicarage in Lancashire, in the 1940s) we had not only a kitchen but a scullery, a larder, and a washup (all walk-in). We had no refrigerator. Meat was kept in a (meat-)safe in the larder. The copper and mangle were in the scullery. The washup was where we washed up after each meal (= AmE did the dishes).
    Upstairs as well as decent-sized bedrooms there was a box-room (with window). It became my youngest brother's bedroom.

  47. "Cupboard" does indeed rhyme with "Hubbard" for me. There is no "r" in either word. (BrE, native Brightonian so I speak Estuary English and am proud of it)

    No-one has mentioned the cupboard under the stairs. Every house I've ever lived in has one. Some so small you can hardly get into them, others large enough to stand up in. Proof that cupboards can be built in and don't have to have shelves (i.e. boards) What do Americans call them?

    "Cupboard" is the general unmarked term for any box or container with doors that is smaller than a room. A large one with clothes in is, for me, wardrobe, whether built-in or not. I sort of assumed that "closet" was American for "wardrobe" - though I am familiar with the word from old books. "Broom cupboards" are built-in and are large enough to stand up in. They don't have to contain brooms. A large cupboard with food in can be called a "larder", but that more properly means a built-in room with shelves for food. We use the word "larder" for the space we kept food in in our council house in Woodingdean in the 1960s. To me the word "pantry" implies a full-sized room with room to sit down in, and would be an indication of a very posh house indeed - though I have known colleges and clubs with "pantries". Many 19th century houses still in use have had separate small pantries for food preparation and sculleries (obs.?) for washing which have since been knocked together to make one larger kitchen.

    I've not only seen a boxroom in the wild, I've lived in a house with one, in Round Hill Crescent in Brighton in the 1970s. When my parents bought it it had had an attic conversion. There were two rooms up there. One had a largish dormer window, and was used as a bedroom. The other had only a tiny skylight and we called it the boxroom. That is a room to keep boxes in. We also had a basement - my own bedroom was down there. Three floors from my brother for the safety of all.

  48. Ken- I think the reason no one mentioned the cupboard under the stairs is that many American houses/homes don't have stairs! Our house is all on one level, as are most of the houses in our small Californian town.

    However, when I was growing up in England we had one, which my parents (my father is American)called the "Fibber McGee closet". I didn't understand the reference at the time but we all called it that, and still do!

  49. Um, several people have mentioned closets/cupboards under the stairs already! While in some parts of the US one-stor(e)y houses may be more common, in others, they are the rare cases. (Search for the previous post on bungalows--my connection is too dodgy right now to risk looking myself.)

  50. Most two-story American houses don't have a closet (or cupboard) under the stairs. Instead, there's usually another staircase leading down to the basement.

    The reference to "eaves cupboards" made me think of the closets you usually find in the upstairs bedrooms of bungalows.

  51. Ah, scullery and larder, and loft, words from my own childhood which now seems incredibly primitive. I wonder whether larder/pantry and loft/attic figure anywhere in the U/non-U scheme, like sitting-room/drawing-room/lounge/etc, or whether there are any regional connotations. Hall(way)/lobby/vestibule?

  52. We've always called the cupboard under the stairs the black hole - because stuff goes into it but you can never get it out again

  53. On the topic of food banks, I'd generically refer to them, well, as food banks - but the one person I know who goes to one and is willing to talk about it (that is, other people may go to one but I don't know of it) refers to it simply as "the pantry" with the fact that it's a charitable organization instead of a literal pantry in her kitchen simply implied. It's weird, though - she's my age, and we grew up in the same city (and in the same two boros as well), but we have very different phrasings.

    Our own pantry in our kitchen is enormous - you could take out the shelves and shove a bed in there if you had to! But I don't know many people who have pantries.

  54. This is your article on bungalows:

    The picture is very similar to our house. Ours was built around 1915. The closet is actually a tiny little hallway connecting the two bedrooms. I guess you could call it "walk-in," but really, unless it's empty, you can't.

  55. I've heard the space under the stairs referred to as the Harry Potter room.

    I'd agree that most multi-story U.S. houses have stacked staircases, so the only triangular space is in the basement (lowest level) and it's too full of spiders and dust to be useful or have a name.

  56. I would strongly refute that Brightonians speak Estuary! Why most of 'em ain't never even seen the river.

    But that aside, Carys- your 'pantry' sounds a lot like a utility room to me.

  57. As many others have said, the boxroom is just the smallest, pokiest room of the house - in my parents' house this was for years used as a place to do the ironing and keep miscellaneous stuff we couldn't be bothered hefting into the attic, until my sister and I reached an age where we demanded our own rooms. We tossed for it, and I won the right to stay in the bedroom while she had to move into the boxroom. I know that's entirely irrelevant to the conversation, but it was the best moment of my life.

    An icebox to me is the part of the fridge also known as the freezer compartment - that little box in the top, not large enough to freeze a cat. I assumed this was the correct term, but now I think about it my parents did tell me a lot of lies when I was young.

  58. What you are referring to as closets I know as fitted wardrobes. A highly sensible idea and much cheaper in a new build (I've got two in my Lankan house).

    Fairly common in Spain and France; I've never come across one in the UK, but the minuscule size of UK houses is a matter of national shame.

  59. ----"This is a relatively shallow, floor-to-ceiling cupboard in the hall. But I'm not sure if this is standard terminology, or just a family quirk."------

    We used to have them in the bathroom and called them airing cupboards. They'd have the lagged hotwater heater at the bottom and then shelves on top for sheets and towels.

  60. ---"I don't know how they would differ from pantries, which I've only physically seen in Australia, where housing spreads out to American dimensions."-----

    There was one in every small pre-1950s semi I lived in in the UK.

  61. To British me, a cupboard is anywhere with doors that you store stuff. A wardrobe can also be called a cupboard (however a kitchen cupboard cannot be called a wardrobe).

    A cupboard that was built in would be called a built in wardrobe or cupboard (I guess this is a closet to you?). But most likely I wouldn't specify the difference unless it was to mean that one as opposed to a free-standing wardrobe.

    Also, pantry and larder to me mean the same thing: somewhere (theoretically cool) to keep non-perishable food.

  62. Just saw this in today's telly listings. No further comment.

    11:25 Diddy Dick & Dom
    Children's fun with the entertaining duo who live in a pink cupboard.

  63. Interesting program(me) on Radio 4 about closets today. Listen "again" available for the next week at

  64. As a Yank arriving in the North of England back in the mid 80s, I also found the term "boxroom" confusing - until I saw one (well, more than one as we were looking at houses to let). In each case it was a small bedroom. And I do mean small - barely enough room for a single bed...

    btw - love this blog!!

  65. When I was four my family moved into a newly built council flat (apartment, actually a maisonette) on a council estate (housing project). It had a box room. This was a small windowless room intended for storage. As it was walk-in it was not a cupboard. I always held the opinion that my bedroom was also a box room, as it only just had room for a twin bed.

  66. Closeted did not have any gay associations when I was growing up. It meant something between sheltered and coddled. There is not a similar use for cupboard. Cupboards are just practical.

  67. We had a closet in our (British, East Midlands) house: it was the large cupboard by the front door in the hallway where coats and the burglar alarm were kept. I don't know if that's what everyone called it, or even if that kind of cupboard is a feature of most homes.

  68. But that you called it 'that kind of cupboard' underscores the difference, as in my native dialect, I can't call any kind of closet a 'cupboard'.

    In UK houses with stairs, I think a cupboard below the stairs is fairly common--though these days they're often turned into a (BrE) cloakroom (in the 'toilet' sense)/AmE half-bath.

  69. I grew up in a Victorian farmhouse in NW England. We didn't have an attic but we did have a boxroom (1x2m) for Xmas decs and general tat. When my husband and I moved to Germany our apartment had a similar windowless room that I automatically called the boxroom. (Hubbie is Danish so he's no help in offering other regional alternatives.) We plumbed in the washing machine and for about three days I tried to call it "the utility" but I've since given up and we have a boxroom again.

  70. I am a South African who has been living in the London and Essex area now for 8 years. Around here the term “box room” refers to the smallest room in the house. A lot of the time the room is built over the stairs and therefore not as big as the others. In some cases -like mine- there is an actual “box” in the room, because the floor of the box room is also the roof of the stairs, and has to be “lifted" in order for the roof to be high enough over the stairs.

  71. Harry Cambell

    Box rooms are common in traditional (Victorian, let's say) flats in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which often have everything from large walk-in cupboards to very small windowless bedrooms to something behind a full-sized door which turns our tro be no more than a shallow bookcase

    Our Victorian Edinburgh flat has three walk-in cupboards and three of those shallow behind-a-door cupboards — which we know as 'presses'. The big 'cupboards' are really quite substantial, but too narrow for any sort of activity — which is why we call them cupboards rather than rooms. A fourth roomlet is used for storing food, so we call it a 'pantry', not a 'walk-in cupboard'. We don't use the term 'box room'.

    For me,
    • a room has a door (possibly more) and can accommodate some activity
    • a cupboard has a door (or two) and is free standing
    And constructed like a cupboard:
    • a unit or cupboard unit is
    attached to other constructions in a fitted kitchen
    • a wardrobe is a cupboard used for clothes (even if built for a different purpose)
    • a dresser is a cupboard with display shelves attached on top

    A cupboard can be vey big indeed, and pretty small — but not too small. I think the criterion is that it stands or hangs somewhere. If you can carry it around, I would say it's some sort of box.

    Cupboard could in the past mean the food that was stored in one. And we still speak of cupboard love — temporary affection which is conditional on receiving food or other favours.

  72. In the St. Louis Mo area, we call cupboards, cabInets, sometimes we have a pantry. The refridgerater is the Fridge, but the part that makes/holds ice is an icebox or a freezer interchangeable to me, but usually the Freezer.
    The Food Pantry is what we call the place people who need help go for some donated food.

  73. British English speaker here. Have lived in many flats and houses from various periods (and viewed many more!) and I have never seen a house with what the OP or the photos in the comments would call a closet.

    The closest comparison I can think of is an en-suite bathroom or the cupboard under the stairs, in which case cupboard is just a synonym for closet. That's the only "small room connected to the main room" that we really have

    And yeah, when I picture the phrase "coming out of the closet", I've always imagined someone bursting out of a wardrobe.

  74. Of the built-in spaces in the kitchen, I refer to the ones on the floor (below the countertops) as cabinets, and the higher ones (above the countertops) as cupboards. I am American-raised with English grandparents.

  75. Massachusetts- "But not yours, of course. I cherish that. It is just so really, really extra cute and weird."

    This to me is a perfect example of sarcasm that straddles the American and British senses of the word.

    When it's said with twinkling eyes as I imagine you would, it makes for a wonderful inside joke.

  76. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. Still having a great time working my way through old posts. I grew up calling a cupboard a press. When I moved to the Deep South (of the U.K.) 40-odd years ago (is this also AmE usage?), this was a sorce of great (and very persistent) hilarity to my cow orkers. Many years later, when I started work with the Civil Service, I was introduced to the key press: a small box on the wall (itself lockable) in which keys were kept securely.

    The free-standing piece of furniture with drawers below a small cupboard was known as a “tall boy”.

    My granny lived in what would now be called a one-bedroomed flat (is the -ed on bedroom typical BrE, or just local?). She called this a “room and kitchen”. The “kitchen” was what I would now call a living room. What I would now call a kitchen was the “scullery”. This usage persisted until at least the 1960s. I’ve never been sure if it was used throughout Scotland, or just for my bit of the south west.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)