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It seems to me that ‘cupboard’ in the 21st century is usually a closet or cabinet; a piece of furniture usually with shelves for storing food, crockery, and utensils. But early in the 20th century, ‘cupboard’ was in most cases a recess with a door and shelves for storage of not only of cups and saucers, but also daily things such as a small chair. Now isn’t this called a ‘storage room’?

If I am right in my definition of this word, in what decades of the 20th century did this change or transition of lexical meaning occurred?

I was much surprised to find the unfamiliar usage of 'cupboard' in these stage directions, which are from Belinda, a play written by A. A. Milne in 1922.

  • (Takes up a vase from a chair in cupboard arid shakes it as if draining it.)
  • Baxter (meeting Belinda coming out of the cupboard)
  • Belinda (bundling him into the cupboard and closing the door). Hush.
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    Which side of the Atlantic are you thinking of? :) Cabinets, closets, cupboards, pantries, dressers, chests-of-drawers, chiffarobes, armoires, wardrobes, aumbries, almirahs, muurkas &c can mean quite different things on one side of North Atlantic than on the other. And that isn’t even taking the Southern Hemisphere into account, or the Subcontinent, some of which have their own traditions.
    – tchrist
    May 27 at 0:22
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    As an AmE speaker from the mid to late 20th c, your first definition is mine. Where did you hear that a cupboard could hold an entire chair? Could you give a quote or reference? I've never heard that before.
    – Mitch
    May 27 at 0:52
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    I have seen large cupboards that hold stacks of chairs.
    – Peter
    May 27 at 0:57
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    @tchrist, I mean a cupboard that is built into the structure of the building (and appears in the plans). A human could walk/crouch into the space left by a chair stack after it was wheeled out on a trolley, but you could not enter the cupboard when it was filled to its designed capacity.
    – Peter
    May 27 at 4:15
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    I believe 4 Privet Drive has a cupboard under the stairs that’s large enough to sleep in.
    – Jim
    May 27 at 5:42
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In British English, a cupboard can be either a free-standing piece of furniture or built-in. The one referred to by Milne is obviously a walk-in cupboard, which presumably must have been mentioned somewhere in the stage directions. The date of the play is not relevant; there has been no 'change in meaning'.

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  • Is this the most common term for such? I'm used to using 'wardrobe' for a free standing piece of furniture mainly for clothes. British/Canadian English, although for this particular word I'm relying on my Br. English side.
    – Alan Munn
    May 27 at 20:18
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    @AlanMunn bedrooms have wardrobes, but other rooms often have cupboards, kitchen ones usually being attached to the walls.
    – Chris H
    May 27 at 21:04
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In Australian English the generic term would be "storage space", not "storage room".

A storage room is a room, i.e. an inside space which is large enough to walk around in and used for storage. A room may be small, for example a toilet.

A cupboard is different from a storage room because it is not intended to be occupied. A built-in cupboard may have the same floor as the house and appear on house plans to be similar to a very small room, but it is not designed for occupancy and there is usually no light, ventilation or an interior door handle. Access to such a cupboard is usually through a person standing in its doorway. Other built-in cupboards, such as those built under a bench, cannot be entered easily.

Some cupboards are free-standing units, used for storage. If such a cupboard were large enough, it could contain a chair or a person. The word is also used for the closable part of a storage unit, built-in or free-standing, which is partly closable and partly open.

Some words may refer to cupboards or to other spaces. A pantry may be a cupboard, but in some older houses it is a room containing food storage cupboards. In a caravan it may be a shelf. Some modern houses have a "walk-in pantry", which has shelves and enough floor space to allow access to the shelves. Such a pantry would not be referred to as a cupboard. Similarly a "walk-in-robe" serves the function of a wardrobe for storing clothes, but allows access for a person within the space. The clothes themselves may be on open spaces or closed spaces (cupboards) within the "walk-in-robe".

In my experience, the essential features of a cupboard are that it is intended for storage, closable with a door, and not designed to be occupied.

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    What you describe in your second paragraph is invariably a closet here.
    – tchrist
    May 27 at 13:01
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    “Some modern houses have a ‘walk-in pantry’ […] Such a pantry would not be referred to as a cupboard.” I know people in both Australia and the UK who have such pantries and call them cupboards.
    – PLL
    May 27 at 19:09
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    @PLL, fair enough. I haven't come across the usage though; people I know call them pantries.
    – Peter
    May 29 at 6:46

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