ivory tower

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1911, calque of French figurative use, based on literal biblical phrase.

Originally Song of Solomon 7:4, used as simile for the woman’s beautiful neck:

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory (King James Version)

Figurative sense from French tour d'ivoire, coined by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve in the poem Pensés d’Août (Thoughts of August) (1837) to compare the poet Alfred de Vigny (more isolated) with Victor Hugo (more socially engaged),[1] in the line:[2]

Et Vigny, plus secret,
Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi rentrait.
And Vigny, more discreet,
As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon.

First attested in English in a translation of Laughter by French philosopher Henri Bergson (translation 1911 by Frederick Rothwell and Cloudesley Shovell Henry Brereton).[3][2] Term popularized in The Ivory Tower (1917) by Henry James,[2] though used in different sense (millionaires, not professors).



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ivory tower ‎(plural ivory towers)

  1. (idiomatic) A sheltered, overly-academic existence or perspective, implying a disconnection or lack of awareness of reality or practical considerations.
    • 2005 — Daniel Walker, Valedictory speech for Hamilton College
      Hamilton College is an ivory tower with an open bar, and so I - who work and play equally hard - have come to love this place, and have been dead-set against leaving it.
    • 2013 July 20, “The attack of the MOOCs”, The Economist, volume 408, number 8845: 
      Since the launch early last year of […] two Silicon Valley start-ups offering free education through MOOCs, massive open online courses, the ivory towers of academia have been shaken to their foundations. University brands built in some cases over centuries have been forced to contemplate the possibility that information technology will rapidly make their existing business model obsolete.
    Such a proposal looks fine from an ivory tower, but it could never work in real life.



ivory tower ‎(not comparable)

  1. Separated from reality and practical matters; overly academic.
    • 1968, New Library World, Volumes 69-70, page 8:
      The majority of librarians appear to have shown a very ivory tower approach to the application of all types of management technique to librarianship.
    • 1995, Hearings relating to Madison Guaranty S&L and the Whitewater Development Corporation, Washington, DC phase, page 504:
      I must say that, with all due respect, I think that's a very ivory tower approach.
    • 2007, Joan Gorham, Annual Editions: Mass Media 07/08, page 158:
      Bob Woodruff, an anchor and correspondent for ABC News who arrived in New Orleans the Wednesday after the storm hit, calls the detached-observer ideal "a very ivory tower notion that's not practiced in the field."
    • 2004, Geoffrey Kabaservice, The Guardians, page 154:
      Griswold was perhaps the most ivory tower president of Yale in the twentieth century, and in many ways the university turned toward conservatism in the decade after his inauguration, in 1950.


  1. ^ (fr) Joseph Delorme, Poésies complètes de Sainte-Beuve, Charpentier et Cie, 1869, p. 374, « Les consolations »
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 ivory tower”, Wordorigins.org, Dave Wilton, Saturday, July 08, 2006.
    Cites Oxford English Dictionary, 1884-1928, and First Supplement, 1933
  3. ^ ivory tower”, The Phrase Finder, Gary Martin.