Pinning Down `From Pillar to Post'

`TO and fro,'' ``hither and thither, ``running round in circles'' - in these days when the world divides so readily into those with too little to do and those doing the work of five, the more frenetic part of the population seems likely to ensure that such phrases do not become redundant.

But there is another useful idiom of this ilk. I thought everyone used it to describe times of rushed and diffuse over-activity. It perfectly describes being tossed, pushed, or driven from one place or person to another. But some people seem never to have heard of it. It is, ``from pillar to post.''

I have always used it, but have never considered its origin. What could it have first meant - from pillar to post?

Being British, I suspect I may have subliminally believed it had some obscure connection with mailing letters. With rushing to the postbox, perhaps, before the postman makes his collection. Britain to this day sports a considerable number of post-office-red cast-iron ``pillar boxes.'' So in these islands we literally go to a pillar to post a letter. To pillar for post?

I am quite wrong.

``From pillar to post'' originated from the game of tennis. And I mean the game of tennis - not the simplified version played at Wimbledon and suchlike places that only harks back to the last century. It is ``real tennis'' (or as it is called in the United States, ``court tennis'') that all the idiom books and dictionaries agree introduced the phrase. Since Henry VIII played real tennis at Hampton Court Palace, it means that ``from pillar to post'' goes back at least to the 16th century.

Chris Ronaldson, one of Britain's leading real-tennis professionals, explains that a real-tennis court has posts down one side. But the word ``pillars'' puzzles him. ``On the right side of the court,'' he says, ``there are buttresses which we call tambours. But not pillars.'' Presumably, the ball can bounce from post to tambour and back.

Tambour is a French word. But it has taken up residence in English, gathering several meanings - one or two of which apply specifically to parts of columns. Columns and pillars are not too far from being the same thing with a different name, so maybe a tambour might be called a pillar by somebody not too scrupulous about architectural exactitude. Or somebody rushed off his feet. To and fro. Here and there. Helter-skelter. From pillar to... post.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.