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From cellar to dome

Q From Thomas O'Dwyer: I came across this in an American article: “Buyers must exercise their right to carry out a total inspection of the property, from the cellar to the dome.” I’ve never heard this phrase used except for quoting the lyric of Let A Woman in Your Life from My Fair Lady — “She’ll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome.” Does it have any other origin or wider usage? After all, how many homes have domes?

A I’ve looked into this as thoroughly as I can, but have to admit failure. I can tell you a little more about the expression, but not where it comes from. Nevertheless, it’s worth discussing because it was once moderately common and yet has escaped the notice of the compilers of reference works.

Some information is easy to obtain. It is almost exclusively an American expression (one example appeared in a New Zealand paper in February 1926, but as it was about a Lon Chaney movie, He Who Gets Slapped, it may have been a syndicated piece from an American source). It has turned up most often in contracted form, either as from cellar to dome or less commonly as from dome to cellar. Its heyday was between 1900 and 1920, though known earlier, and it still appears from time to time, showing that it hasn’t yet quite vanished from popular memory. This is the most recent that I’ve unearthed:

The staggering opulence of the show ... could easily be conveyed to the reader by simply estimating the number of gold karats that encrust every gallery, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, cellar to dome.

Santa Fe Reporter, 14 Jan. 2003.

And this is the earliest I’ve so far found:

The governor opened the gates to the infuriated rabble, whom it were madness to resist. In ten minutes, the huge castle swarmed from cellar to dome; the armory was ransacked, and the park of artillery seized.

The Court of Napoleon, by Frank Boott Goodrich, 1857.

It’s clear that even then it had become a fixed phrase. As you say, it implies a grand building, not domestic architecture. Its origin, whatever it is, surely lies further back in time. Clearly enough, it borrows from the existing idea of from head to foot. But what its origin might be baffles me.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Nov. 2010

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Last modified: 27 November 2010.