Tuesday, July 5, 2011


In my recent blog about euphemisms, especially words and phrases about--er, bathroom fixtures--I omitted a common British word: "cloakroom". There is an ambiguity with the word: in some places (such as a theater or restaurant in colder climes than California's) the room so designated is indeed a place to store hats, coats, briefcases, etc. It is usually a place presided over by a woman, who often makes a pretty good income from tips.

"Cloak" as a verb is a useful word, implying a complete covering, as in "the ground was cloaked in snow". As a noun, I visualize a "cloak" to be a garment with no buttons, and probably no sleeves. It is the sort of outdoor covering that Little Red Riding Hood would have worn with her hood. It would go well with an opera hat--a sort of collapsible top hat--and a silver-headed cane: in fact, there is such a garment as an "Opera Cloak", very similar to a "cape", but longer, also designed to be worn over evening clothes. We don't see many such cloaks in California now.

We mostly encounter "cloak" these days in the phrase "cloak & dagger". Sometimes this refers to espionage, and always implies secrecy and mystery. The phrase probably originated from a form of one-on-one combat, in which a cloak was used to disguise the movement of the dagger, and generally to distract the opponent. (Compare a matador's use of the muleta to distract the bull he is about to dispatch.) Some considered this form of fighting deceptive and even "dishonest", by comparison to fencing openly with a rapier or other dueling weapon.

Probably the most famous cloak in English history is the one deemed to have played a vital role in what is considered a great example of "chivalry". Virtually every English schoolchild knows the legend, which may be based on an actual incident. Reportedly, Sir Walter Raleigh cast down his cloak over a puddle, to protect Queen Elizabeth's shoes from the mud. Indeed, this may be considered chivalrous, but I sincerely doubt that Sir Walter was expected to wash out his own cloak! That would have been a job for one of his servants.

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