Quick on the Draw!

The verb to draw is quite a useful one, isn’t it? There’s the obvious meaning of draw a picture, but consider how many other ways we use it:

  • a horse-drawn cart
  • withdraw money
  • draw a pension
  • draw something out (prolong something excessively)
  • draw someone into a situation
  • a prize draw
  • draw lots
  • draw a blank
  • draw a gun

… and so on. Looking at most of these, you can see that to draw most often means to pull or take. And this is not surprising, considering that the word is derived from the Old English dragan (to drag, to draw, to protract) which is also where we get the verb to drag. Unsurprisingly then, you could replace draw with drag in some of the previous phrases: you can drag someone into something, or drag something out. You could even drag your money out of the bank, if they gave it you in a large sack with a dollar sign on it.

This meaning of to draw is also present in the word drawer. Think about how you open a drawer: you pull it open, or draw it. Therefore, it’s a drawer. Drawer is also an interesting word as it’s often mistakenly but understandably used by English learners to refer to an illustrator. If a writer writes and a painter paints, surely a drawer draws, no!?

But as I said at the beginning, we most often use to draw to mean to illustrate. Isn’t this quite different in meaning from its other uses? It seems to be, but the basic idea is still there. Think about it: if you draw a picture, what you’re actually doing is drawing (or dragging, depending on your style) your pencil across the page to produce a picture. This then became the most common meaning of to draw, because we all like nice pictures, don’t we?

For me though, the really interesting word in this etymological mix is to retire, which at first glance seems entirely unrelated to to draw and to drag. But I was thinking recently about how the French for to pull is tirer, and for drawer is tiroir. There must be some link to to retire in there! And there is. The word in its original more general meaning of to retreat, comes from the French retirer, with the re- meaning back, and tirer meaning to draw, just as we can still say to draw back to mean to retreat. Which is what you’re doing when you retire; you’re drawing yourself away from the world of work, pulling yourself out of it (and of course we commonly use to pull out to mean to withdraw, as in, oh for example, the Paris Climate Accord).

Anyway, I won’t draw this out any longer, or draw you into a detailed dissection of words, but it’s enlightening to think of the simple, practical meanings of the words we use.

8 thoughts on “Quick on the Draw!

  1. Fascinating article! I’ve never thought much about the connection between draw and drawer — maybe because we pronounce drawer with a long “o” like for, or “door” with an “r”.

    And I certainly never thought of drag and draw being related, but I can see how the latter could have come of the former. Maybe it’s a spin-off of those “augh” deals like draughts?

    I guess “draw up” would relate directly to “draw a picture” and “draw in” to “drag in.” And an overdraft is pulling too much money out. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It irritates me when people refer to a draw, which is actually a drawer (noun). For example, “I painted my bedroom draw, do you like it?” I can see it is relates because like you said, you draw it. It’s wrong to refer to it as a draw though. Isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

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