"To draw" originally meant "to drag, pull", and it's pretty easy to make sense of the many meanings of the verb with that in mind.

Draw a sword, draw a card, draw water from a well, draw breath, a drawer, withdraw, ...

Even for the most farfetched ones, I can see the figurative stretch. But not for the main meaning of the verb.

What does "to produce artwork" have to do with pulling or dragging?

btw I'm not sure if I cann technically call it a semantic shift if the original meaning is still in use.

  • . etymonline.com/word/draw#etymonline_v_15889 'to make lines" is c. 1200. Feb 6, 2019 at 15:02
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    Similar to how 'drive' is for cars now but was earlier about directing cattle. The history of the word 'post' is like metaphor after metaphor after metaphor.
    – Mitch
    Feb 6, 2019 at 19:27
  • Take a piece of string, put chalk on it, draw it taught, and snap it. You have just drawn a line.
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 6, 2019 at 22:18
  • 2
    You're dragging ink/graphite/etc. from the writing instrument?
    – jamesdlin
    Feb 6, 2019 at 23:24

2 Answers 2


Emerging ca. 1200, draw in the graphic sense comes from drawing some implement or material — pen, pencil, chalk, etc. — across an appropriate surface:

Draw thanne by thi rewle a lyne fro the hed of aries to the hed of libra.— Equatorie of the Planets, Ms. Cambridge, Peterhouse 75, ca. 1392.

(A rough translation into modern English, from the comments: "Draw then using your ruler a line from the head of Aries to the head of Libra.")

  • 5
    For those of us who don't read Middle English, could you provide a translation?
    – p.s.w.g
    Feb 6, 2019 at 23:33
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    @p.s.w.g "Draw then by the rule a line from the head of Aries to the head of Libra"? IANGC (i am not geoff chaucer), but that's my guess.
    – jkf
    Feb 6, 2019 at 23:49
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    @jkf possibly 'your' rule
    – mcalex
    Feb 7, 2019 at 5:06
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    "thi" is aalmost certanly "Thy". Texts like this are written as an instruction to a student, so the familiar form of the 2nd person pronoun would be used. "Draw then, by your rule(r?), a line from the head of Aries to the head of Libra." Feb 7, 2019 at 10:39
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    @TeleportingGoat: That which is drawn, line, drawing, design, etc. is still the direct object; the ink, pencil, or chalk is the means. But you can still say, He drew the pencil rapidly across the paper.
    – KarlG
    Feb 7, 2019 at 10:57

There is not really a significant semantic shift, given that to produce a "drawing" one must still drag/pull the pen/pencil/chalk across a surface. The real issue is the appropriating of physical metaphors[1] for digital artifacts (window/file/folder/drawing)[2]. This also occurs when referring to digital representations as their physical counterpart (such as when a user might say they are "viewing the drawings of DaVinci" online, when they are, in fact, viewing digital representations of photos of the drawings). This has led to any type of visual representation in digital form to be referred to as if it were the original, physical thing itself, such as when a program that produces a visual output consisting of lines is referred to as a "drawing". This is not specific to "draw", but occurs across a wide range of terms.[3]

[1]: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/155776687.pdf see chapter 2.2

[2]:https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=17685&context=rtd see chapter 1.2

[3]: http://prior.sigchi.org/chi95/Electronic/documnts/tutors/ams_bdy.htm see the lists of terms

  • I feel your argument is sort of similar to the "C'est n'est pas une pipe" idea; that is, the photo of a drawing created by DaVinci (or rather the digital representation of that photo) is not, in fact, the original drawing, but it does convey the drawing. You wouldn't point at the arrangement of pixels on the screen and claim you possessed the original artwork; but it would nonetheless "be" the art that DaVinci created. Although, in any such case, this topic is not really related to the question at hand; this is a separate, interesting discussion, but not what the asker was asking about.
    – Florrie
    Feb 6, 2019 at 19:05
  • 1
    @Florrie yes, I did have the "C'est n'est pas une pipe" idea in mind, but not for the purpose of philosophy as such, but for the purpose of showing how the term "drawing" is used in contexts where no dragging or pulling has taken place in reality (which begs the OP's question of how that term has come to mean "produce artwork"). Historically, the only way to produce a drawing was by pulling/dragging, but with computers, artworks can be produced without any true "drawing" (pulling/dragging) taking place, yet they are still referred to as "drawings" because of the referred/referent blurring.
    – enharmonic
    Feb 6, 2019 at 19:19
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    To me there is a shift on the object. You draw a picture, not a pencil. See my comment on KarlG's answer. Feb 7, 2019 at 10:47
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    And I really don't think there's an issue when it gets digital, physical metaphors for digital things or action are very, very common. Feb 7, 2019 at 10:49
  • @enharmonic wrote "Historically, the only way to produce a drawing was by pulling/dragging" Actually, if I recall, before the removable-type printing press was used, people would carve an entire page into a block and have a stamp that represented that page. This allowed rapid printing long ago, but since it was detailed and very time consuming work in a time when many people did not benefit from books, it was only done for very important texts which needed to be mass produced, such as religious or classics. These did include pictures, though they were probably not called drawings.
    – Aaron
    Feb 7, 2019 at 17:02

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