Comedians have been having some fun over a couple of recent scandals where people have purchased antique commodes for many thousands of dollars. First there was Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham who, it was revealed in 2005, had received two antique, French commodes as “gifts.” Cunningham was later convicted of bribery. Now it has been revealed that former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain had redecorated his office to the tune of $1.2 million while his company was circling the drain. The redecoration included a commode worth some $35,000. The humor, and much of the outrage, is in the idea of a really expensive toilet.
But that’s not what is meant by commode, at least not in these cases. The word commode today does refer to a bathroom fixture, but this was not always the case. The commodes in these cases are chests of drawers, a sense that is not much in use today outside of antiquing circles.
The word commode first appears in English in the early 17th century as an adjective meaning convenient; it comes from the French. From Peter Heylin’s 1637 A brief and moderate answer to the seditious and scandalous Challenge of H. Burton:
This is the place […] so pricked and commode, as I finde it in the […] said olde booke.
Its use as a noun appears in the latter half of the century, meaning a tall headdress worn by fashionable women of the era. It’s use to mean a piece of furniture dates to 1786, when Scottish writer Alexander Fraser Tytler used it in an article in the magazine The Lounger:
A labyrinth of chests of drawers, commodes, cabinets and boxes.
The sense of a chair that holds a chamber pot dates to the mid-19th century. It is from this that the modern sense of a plumbing fixture comes. From the Times of London, 1 April 1851:
Inodorous chamber commodes affording great comfort to invalids.
This does not make the cases of bribery and waste of corporate funds any less appalling, but it does show that the jokes are based on a misunderstanding of what is meant by commode.1
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton