Ivory tower

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Fri Jun 4 00:24:18 UTC 2004

> > I am looking for the etymology for "ivory tower" in reference to
> > higher education. Any help you could provide would be greatly
> > appreciated.
>It's not especially clear where it comes from. I've had a shot at
>explaining it at http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ivo1.htm .

I don't have any solid answer but I can add a few remarks.

I doubt that the Biblical "tower of ivory" used as a simile for a woman's
neck is relevant.

There are Biblical references to an "ivory house" or "ivory palace" (Ahab
had one, I think): I believe these might be relevant. Presumably an "ivory
palace" was a palace heavily decorated with ivory. (Any expert, please
correct me if necessary.) However on naive reading one might take this to
mean a palace constructed entirely of ivory, which would be the wonder of
the world, surely, unless it was a very tiny palace. I suspect this is the
basic concept.

Here are some lines referring to a sumptuous palace, from Matthew Prior's
poem "Solomon on the Vanity of the World", dating from 1718 (I think), as
printed in 1860, available on-line at MoA (Michigan):

    The workmen here obey'd the master's call,
To gild the turret, and to paint the wall;
To mark the pavement there with various stone,
And on the jasper steps to rear the throne:
The spreading cedar that an age had stood,
Supreme of trees, and mistress of the wood,
Cut down and carv'd, my shining roof adorns,
And Lebanon his ruin'd honour mourns.
A thousand artists show their cunning power,
To raise the wonders of the ivory tower.

Presumably this refers to a tower covered with ivory (scrimshaw?) at
enormous expense.

So the "ivory tower" may have represented fabulous luxury or wealth
originally. "Tower" in general could mean "place of refuge" too. "Tour
d'ivoire" seems to have appeared in several French works in the 19th
century; possibly review of some of these could show the semantic
development more clearly. Was Vigny considered a very prosperous and
comfortable person?

Anyway, "ivory tower" = "very luxurious and secure place" [such as that
inhabited by an ancient king, or by a modern tenured professor (^_^)] would
seem easy to derive from the above notion.

-- Doug Wilson

More information about the Ads-l mailing list