English has many illogical turns of phrase that sometimes don’t make sense in a literal way. When these occur, it can sometimes be traced back in history to a way of life that has now been lost. This is exactly where we can find the origin of terms such as “Chairman of the Board” and “above board,” among other board-related phrases. These terms have become so ubiquitous in the English language, that you probably never noticed that their meaning is not entirely clear from the expression itself. While you can expect native speakers to understand when you use phrases like this, these are the kind of terms that will confuse English language learners. Understanding how these phrases came to be can help you teach them.
The phrases “Chairman of the Board, “above board,” “room and board,” “board games,” “board meeting,” and “board room” all come from the same origin, dating back to Tudor times in England. In this period, daily life revolved around farming and society was highly hierarchical. In the countryside, wealthy landowners employed labourers to work their land, partially paying them with a midday meal. The landowner’s domestic life would have revolved around his house’s great hall, and more specifically, a large, wooden table known as a board.
Here at the board, the landowner would conduct business, entertain and feed his family, labourers and guests. The labourers and family memebers would sit on benches on either side of the long table. However, as the head of the household, the landowner would sit in a chair at the head. This is where we get the term “Chairman of the Board.” Today, it signifies the head of a board of directors at a company, but the term has been passed down from this tradition. Similarly, while board rooms and board meetings today are associated with business, the terms originate from the Tudor board.
As the board was the centre of life in a Tudor household, this is also where the landowner paid his labourers. In this situation, the landowner would place the money on top of the board to show that he was being honest, hence the term “above board.” Having your hands in sight, above board, showed that you were not doing anything you shouldn’t under the table. You were ensuring that everyone could see that you were keeping to the rules. This is what the the expression means today, but it had a more literal sense when it originated.
Similarly, if an inn or landowner offered “room and board” or “bed and board,” this meant they would host guests overnight and feed them around the table. Today, these terms designate the same – an overnight stay with meals included – but the association of board with food has been lost, so to English learners, this could be confusing.
Perhaps the most logical term (to modern English-speakers) to come from the board, is “board game.” Today, these games typically come with a board to play on, but originally the term referred to games played on the Tudor board. In fact, the games were scratched into the board itself!
The word “board” that all of these terms revolve around derives from the Old Norse term børd, which means plank. This makes sense, when you understand that the board was not a fixed piece of furniture like a modern table. Instead, it was a set of legs with a removable board on top. In fact, the tradition that putting your elbows on the table is rude also comes from this type of Tudor furniture: as the top wasn’t fixed to the legs, if you put your elbows on the table, the whole thing might tip!
Many of the terms we use without thinking today come from historical tradition. It’s important to be aware of these phrases that don’t make literal sense as you teach English as they can really throw learners off. Understanding yourself how the terms came to be can help you answer questions about why we say something in English.
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