The back-and-forth debate to define “cabinet” and “cupboard” seems to go on and on like a birdie in a seemingly endless badminton match. Using each word interchangeably may be acceptable per se, but uncovering their actual meanings can reveal their true differences — and might elicit an “aha” moment that satisfies healthy, natural curiosity. Reliable sources provide some gratification, but be prepared: Like many worthwhile disputes, “gratification” comes mixed with a little frustration.
When you skim American cabinetmaker and cabinetry-association websites, such as the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association, you’ll seldom see the term “cupboard,” but you will frequently find “cabinet” and “cabinetry” — starting with website namesakes. This would suggest that, although many people use the two words interchangeably, kitchen and bathroom cabinets are not cupboards. A look at vocabularies alludes to a difference that may explain how the words became interchangeable.
Is a Cupboard a Cupboard?
North America is culturally diverse, and home to various foreign terms. In many parts of Europe, kitchen cabinets are often referred to as cupboards. “Cupboard” is also a British word for what is commonly considered a “closet” in America — with shoes and sweaters on shelves, and a closet rod for shirts and dresses on hangers. On the flip side, in some parts of Europe, if you’re looking for a bathroom, you’ll want to ask for a water “closet” or “WC” — or simply, “the toilet.” Hang in there; history offers some good distinctions between the subjects in question.
An Age-Old Argument
History may hold the key to the seeming endless cabinet/cupboard dispute. Yesteryear’s manufacturers designed “cabinets” with luxurious precious metals or exotic woods, and with secret nooks and crannies for hiding or storing valuables — such as a secretary desk or secretary cabinet — explains antiquarian Buzz Kaplan of “The Buzz on Antiques” website. Conversely, cupboards lacked pizzazz. They were simplistic in design and meant to house everyday items, such as preserved goods or clothing — think “jelly cupboard,” says Kaplan. This information helps decipher some differences, but take a look at how a dictionary defines the persnickety pair.
Down to the Dictionary
The “Webster’s” dictionary definition of “cabinet” practically matches its definition of “cupboard.” Basically, Webster’s describes each as “a piece of furniture used for storage that has doors and contains shelves.” Well, isn’t that just dandy; but don’t slip yourself into a straitjacket just yet; the dictionary goes on to refer to a cupboard also as “a small closet.” Sometimes, satisfactory answers are simply overrated — and anyhow, who doesn’t love a good debate?
Lorna Hordos is a home-flipping business owner and freelance writer. She writes friendly, conversational business, home and lifestyle articles for Bizfluent, azcentral, Daltile, Marazzi, Lowes, Philips Lighting, WordPress.com and numerous other publications.