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Word roots and routes: draw, drag, draft, draught

© ImageSourceNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Artist Paul Klee famously said that drawing is ‘taking a line for a walk’. The etymology of drawing is different, but equally prosaic: drawing is pulling a pencil across a sheet of paper. The closely-related words draw, drag, draft and draught all have meanings which have developed from the basic idea of pulling. This meaning of draw is evident when people draw water from a welldraw the curtains or draw (a deep) breath, for example.

In other cases, pulling has given way to moving slowly or smoothly, as when someone draws nearer to someone else, or a vehicle draws to a halt.

The notion of pulling is extended metaphorically in uses such as drawing money from a bank account, drawing ideas or inspiration from a particular source, drawing someone’s attention to something or drawing a conclusion. An event that draws, or attracts, a big crowd can be described as a big draw.

When Bob Dylan sang, in his song ‘Love Minus Zero / No Limit‘, about people who ‘draw conclusions on the wall’, he evoked both the usual metaphorical use of draw conclusions and the sense of creating pictures.

The word drawer also embodies the idea of pulling; if you want to take something out of a closed drawer, you need to pull the drawer out in order to open it.

Dragging is also pulling, but usually with difficulty and sometimes without enthusiasm. (However, dragging a file into a new location in a computer isn’t usually difficult.) When you drag your feet or your heels, you do something slowly and unwillingly. Many people nowadays find it hard to drag themselves away from their computers.

Time tends to drag – i.e. to pass slowly – when we are bored. For some people, doing the ironing is therapeutic, while for others it’s just a drag.

The use of drag as an uncountable noun meaning ‘women’s clothes worn by men’ is thought to derive from 19th century theatrical slang and the unfamiliar sensation – unfamiliar, that is, to men in drag – of dragging a long skirt along the ground.

A draft of a document is as if sketched provisionally or drawn without every detail, and if someone is drafted in they are ‘pulled‘ into a team or group of people to give extra help.

A draught is a current of air drawn (or ‘pulled‘) through an opening, and draught beer is drawn, or pulled, from a barrel. A draughtsman, on the other hand, makes professional use of the skill of drawing.

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Jonathan Marks

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