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shameless pleading

Packing room

At Downton Abbey, they use it to store abandoned sub-plots.

Dear Word Detective:  In the National Park Service description of the homes at the Kennedy Compound in Massachusetts  (http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/presidents/site30.htm) is the line “The Joseph P. Kennedy home, [...] On the second floor are six bedrooms, a sewing room, packing room, and four servants’ bedrooms.” Can you define the term “packing room”? A room to store luggage with a work table? A room so filled with “treasures” that everything is packed in? — Gary.

“Treasures”? I suspect that somebody’s been watching that “Hoarders” shows on A&E, where the afflicted packrats invariably refer to their mountains of useless junk as “treasures.” I actually watched this show for a while, but I got bored. The problem is that the show’s producers want the hoarders to throw stuff away themselves, which leads to hours of tedious arguing and death threats. My approach would be to lock the loons in the back room, throw everything into a dumpster, and then let them keep whatever they can fish out in ten minutes while wearing oven gloves and a blindfold. Problem solved.

After doing quite a bit of digging, I think I can safely say that “packing room” means different things to different people, and that what you mean by “packing room” is, to a large extent, dependent on your personal rung on the social ladder.

“Packing” is, of course, a noun most commonly meaning “the action of packing,” although “packing” can also refer to the sort of things used in packing something. The verb “to pack” actually came from the noun “pack,” which wandered into English in the 13th century from Germanic roots carrying the general sense of “bundle.” Today we use “pack” the noun in dozens of senses in three general categories: “a bundle or package” (e.g., a “pack” of cigarettes), a group or set (a “pack” of wolves), or various uses conveying some sense of something having been shoved together (as in an arctic “ice pack”).

“Pack” as a verb has two main senses: “to form into a pack,” which would include everything from “packing” clothes in a suitcase to “packing” a jury with sympathetic jurors, and “to leave,” drawn from the act of departing with a suitcase “packed” with one’s clothes, etc. (“Out I say, pack out this moment,” Goldsmith, 1766). Today the latter sense is often seen in the form “to send packing,” meaning “to banish or eject” or “to pack it up” or “pack it in,” meaning to stop doing something and/or to leave.

“Packing room” seems to have two uses. The first, and by far the more common, is simply “a room, in a factory, shop, etc., where goods or products are packed and prepared for shipment or sale.” Thus a shoe factory in the 19th century would have a separate “packing room” where the shoes were inspected, put in boxes, etc.

The second use of “packing room” is the one you found in that article, that of a room in a very large house (or other large building, such as a museum or library) used primarily for storage of objects or incidental supplies not currently in use, such as extra furniture, seasonal decorations, art work, etc. A packing room may also be used as a receiving room for items coming into the house or building. The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia actually awards a “Packing Room Prize” every year to the portrait most favored by the packing room staff who receive, store  and mount the paintings in the gallery.

So while the factory sort of “packing” room would be analogous to “packing” something for shipment, the “packing room” of a large house such as that at the Kennedy Compound would employ “packing” more in a “shove stuff in together” or “pack things away” sense. But remember, it’s not hoarding if you have servants to dust it.

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