Ceiling wax

One song I remember from my childhood is Puff, the magic dragon, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. For some time I wondered what

ceiling wax

is. I don’t know how I found out that it is, in fact

sealing wax.

I obviously knew about ceilings before I knew about sealings.

Ceiling is a strange word. It ends with -ing, but it’s not related to a verb; we don’t usually ceil ceilings like we build buildings. (Someone has flippantly suggested that we should call them builts.) In fact we do, or buildingers do, whether they call it that or not. Dictionary.com records the verb ceil, meaning

1. to overlay (the ceiling of a building or room) with wood, plaster, etc.
2. to provide with a ceiling 

dating from 1400–50, from late Middle English celen to cover, to panel, followed by a rather vague < ? 

Seal is ultimately from Latin signum and is related to sign. The animal seal is from Old English with cognates in Old Norse and Old High German. There is a story that one holder of the British government office of Lord Privy Seal objected to being addressed as such because he wasn’t a lord, a privy or a seal.  

While I was researching for this post, I found a blog called of ceiling wax, which is about “reading YA, graphic novels and the spaces in between”. Its not-immediately-named author quotes Lewis Carroll’s The walrus and the carpenter (text, Wikipedia), which I’m not as familiar with and didn’t think of. She/he also originally mistook this for ceiling wax.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” 

Some of Carroll’s poems are direct parodies of the poems Alice Liddell would have been familiar with, but this seems to be totally original. 

PS 3 Oct: information about the poems Carroll parodied.


2 thoughts on “Ceiling wax

  1. You didn’t speculate on the origin of “ceil.” Google says: It probably comes from Middle French ‘celer,’ “to conceal,” from Latin ‘celare’ and probably influenced by Latin ‘caelum,’ “sky.”

    Also, ceil/ceiling is/are one of the very few instances — outside of the various words that contain some form of “-ceive” or “-ceipt”, which derive from the Latin “-cipere” (combining form of “capere”) through French — of the English spelling rule “i before e except after c”. It seems to me that there is no general reason to reverse i and e after c other than to account for this handful of French-origin words. You may be able to come up with others.


  2. It’s not surprising that you wouldn’t recognize “sealing wax,” since it’s a material that fell out of use years (centuries?) ago since the development of the envelope with adhesive built in. We still have the metaphoric usage for “sealing the deal” or “sealed with a kiss.”

    Similarly, the tendency to misspell the phrase “free rein” as “free reign” is clearly rooted in the fact that few people use reins anymore as their primary mode of steering a means of transport, but we still have royalty in many nations.


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