In a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917 was used the phrase "on the tapis". What does that mean?

"I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis --O.M.G.- (Oh! My God!)--Shower it on the Admiralty!"

Where does this expression come from?


The earliest usages of the expression on the tapis meaning ”under consideration or discussion” appear on Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases:

1740 Belcher Papers 2:311 -

  • As I have such great affairs on the tapis here

1773 Franklin Writings 6.89 -

  • Bringing it all upon the tapis

The following extract from Behind the dictionary traces the history of the expression. It appears that the “tapis” referred to a tablecloth, that on the table around which problem were discussed:

On the tapis:

This expression was common in the 1800s,...and the meaning was "under consideration." Many of the attestations from the 1800s in Google News Archive have this meaning, with bills, resolutions, questions, or political issues being "on the carpet." (Those that don't have that meaning usually have the literal meaning, as in "She then saw a great stain on the carpet, which was subsequently found to be due to blood.")

According to the ODI, the word carpet in this sense referred to a tablecloth, specifically the "'carpet of the council table,' a table around which a problem was debated." This, in fact, is a direct translation of the French sur le tapis, since tapis could refer to cloth used for tablecloths or carpets (or tapestries). Linguists refer to this kind of borrowing as a calque. In fact, the partial calque on the tapis is still used in English to mean "under consideration." The ODI further claims that this meaning is also the origin of the "to be reprimanded" meaning of on the carpet and the now-obsolete "reprimand" meaning of the verb carpet: one item of business that might be discussed at this table was someone's unsatisfactory job performance.

As evidenced in Google Books the expression “on the tapis” has always been more common in AmE and its usage has decreased consistently in recent decades.

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This usage was unfamiliar to me, but I see the full OED says it's from French sur le tapis, which directly translates as on the carpet. I also found this reference to the specific cited instance, saying it's on the tablecloth - which appeals to me as a Brit, given BrE table (a motion/proposal) means to place it on the agenda for discussion (but since in AmE it means to postpone discussion of an issue, that would probably just be confusing).

OED's definition for on the carpet starts with (i.e. of the council table): under consideration or discussion, which sense matches OP's context. But I thought it was interesting that their definition continues with...

carpet 1b: ... Also colloq. (orig. U.S.) (with admixture of sense 2a1): undergoing, or summoned to receive, a reprimand.

I know a bit of French, but I've no idea whether sur le tapis has (or ever had) either or both of the two metaphorical senses under consideration, undergoing reprimand.

1 carpet 2a: A fabric, generally worked in a pattern of divers colours, used to spread on a floor or the ground.

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  • I suppose it makes good sense to derive the US sense from the French one. After all, if your boss has you under his consideration out on the carpet, that’s quite likely to not bode well for the rest of your day. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 24 '18 at 17:45
  • @Janus: I always used nappe for "tablecloth" (and tapis for "carpet") when I lived in France as a student. But I see this reference explicitly spells it out with His exact words were: 'I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis [tablecloth]... (actually an incidental detail; primary focus being a very early recorded instance of OMG following). – FumbleFingers Jan 24 '18 at 17:58
  • The Russian expression vyzvat' na kovyor has the "reprimand" sense. Interesting. We probably borrowed it from French.It's literally summon on the carpet – CowperKettle Jan 24 '18 at 19:08
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    The equivalent expression in spanish is "en el tapiz" which is a literal translation of sur le tapis. If tapis is interpreted as tablecloth (as @FumbleFingers said), then it is the same as the more common expression "it's on the table" – davidaam Jan 25 '18 at 0:29
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    @Araucaria: Yes, it is. The OED entry for tapestry says it's from earlier tapissery, for which the etymology says French tapisserie (14th cent. in Hatzfeld & Darmesteter), < tapissier a tapestry-worker, or tapisser to cover with carpet, < tapis carpet, table-cloth: see tapis noun (where that last highlighted term links back to the < French sur le tapis] , on the table-cloth, under discussion or consideration definition I linked to at the start of my answer (sorry, about the full OED being behind a paywall! :-( – FumbleFingers Jan 25 '18 at 15:36

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