Sometimes, you read something that just makes you start questioning the reality of everything around you. Case in point, the fact that a sideboard was originally a table, and a wardrobe was originally a toilet.
If that’s enough to stop you in your tracks, we probably shouldn’t add to that list that a cupboard was originally a table as well. (As anyone who has read the HH guide to unpredictable etymological journeys, The Accidental Dictionary, will already know.)
The ‘board’ in both cupboard and sideboard is the same ‘board’ we still have today, of course: it’s just a word for a solid, flat panel. In that sense, when it first appeared in the language in the late 1300s a ‘cup board’ was nothing more than a flat board on which cups could be placed or stored, while a ‘side board’ was precisely the same, only positioned at the side of a room.
But by the early sixteenth century those meanings had altered, so that a cupboard was no long a table on which to put or display crockery, but a closed cabinet or recess in which cups, plates, dishes and other vessels could be displayed or stored. Likewise, a sideboard had become a larger, more robust unit, in or on which plates and other dining equipment could be kept or arranged. Quite what engineered those changes in meaning is debatable, though it was likely little more than the needs and tastes of our developing households changing over time.
As for wardrobe, it literally means ‘private or protected chamber’; the ‘ward’ of wardrobe is the same as found in words like steward and warden, and derives at length from an ancient word root meaning ‘to watch out for’, or ‘to guard’. (Wardrobe itself, in fact, is a corruption of an even earlier Anglo-Norman word, garderobe.)
As for the ‘robe’ part, that simply meant ‘garment’ or ‘vestiture’, and it’s likely the very first wardrobes were private chambers where a person’s favoured or most intimate possessions could be kept. For some reason, however, in the sense of a private, intimate recess, it was as another word for a privy or a latrine that the word wardrobe first emerged in the English language in the early 1300s, before the ‘clothing storehouse’ meaning caught up in the mid fifteenth century. The association with bodily functions survived for a time, however: wardrobe was a Middle English word for badger dung, which survived in a handful of local dialects right through to the 1800s.
And that really is enough to question everything you thought you knew.