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Dear Word Detective: After Thanksgiving yesterday, my brother and I were charged with removing the table leaves from our dining table. My brother said, “Why are these things called leaves? They don’t look anything like leaves.” So I have looked and looked and I can’t find any reason why they would be called that. I hope you can help me out. — Parker Reynolds.
Ah, Thanksgiving, the holiday when tables misbehave. This year at Word Detective World Headquarters, we noticed, bright and early Thanksgiving morning, that our dining room table was tilting sharply to the south. This was a curious departure from the tradition in this house for things to tilt sharply to the west, the direction in which the whole structure is slowly collapsing. I was about to venture outside to take a look at our so-called foundation when we discovered that one of the table’s legs was actually seriously cracked. So I patched it with some mashed potatoes and it held through the day, but I think we need a new table.
It is true that the “leaves” of a table bear scant resemblance to the leaves of a plant or tree (“leaves” being, of course, the plural of “leaf”), but neither do many other things going by the name “leaf.” We inherited “leaf” from Old English, where it carried the literal meaning of “foliage of a plant” as well as the figurative sense of “page of a book” (or, in a further extension, the words printed thereon). This “page” sense gave us phrases such as “take a leaf from someone’s book” (to copy their thoughts or actions) and “to turn over a new leaf” (turn the page, i.e., to make a new start). “Leaf” has also been applied to a variety of leaf-like things, such as “gold leaf,” a very thin sheet of the metal, and “leaflet,” originally a term in botany, now meaning a single sheet of paper usually bearing either advertising or political exhortation.
One of the uses to which “leaf” was put in the 15th century was to mean “a hinged part or a part attached at one edge by a hinge,” as a hinged flap on machinery, furniture or the like. For example, the parts of a “Dutch door” (also called a “stable door,” divided horizontally to allow opening the top half while the bottom remains closed) would be considered “leaves.”
By the 16th century, this sense of “leaf” was being applied to hinged sections of a table that hang down from the side but can be raised when more surface area is needed. Within a hundred years, this sense was expanded to include any movable element or addition to a table, such as the “leaves” that are inserted into the top of a table to increase its area.