Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

At an exhibition dedicated to Picasso a few years ago I was struck by what seemed to amount to a compulsion to draw. It seems he drew everywhere, all the time, and on anything that came to hand: bits of cardboard and wood, scraps of paper, tablecloths, napkins, anything on which a mark could be made. I was reminded of this when reading about the discovery in a cave in South Africa of what archaeologists say is the first known drawing in the world: a few lines hatched in ochre on a tiny fragment of rock 73,000 years ago, and thus more than 30,000 years older than the cave paintings of  El Castillo in Spain and Maros in Sulawesi. It seems that the urge to make marks on surfaces is an even more ancient human instinct than we thought.

Drawing comes, of course, from the verb to draw, and refers both to the activity of making marks with a pen, pencil, crayon or similar to create an image, and to the product of this activity. Drawing forms part of many compounds, including drawing pin, drawing board, life drawing and line drawing, although one of them–the old-fashioned term drawing room–refers not to a room in which people draw, but to a private room to which they can withdraw; in fact it was originally called a withdrawing room.

For words that describe such a basic human activity, draw and drawing are surprisingly light on figurative uses: in fact, the only ones I can think of are back to the drawing board, and those that involve drawing lines, such as draw a line under something draw a line in the sand, and draw the line.

Draw is of Germanic origin and comes from Old English ‘dragan’. It is related to Dutch ‘dragen’ and German ‘tragen’, and the earliest senses relate not to artistic activity but to pulling and moving things.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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