Online only

Chapel chapter and verse

Painting - see caption

Saint Martin dividing his cloak, by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). See below...

WITH re-recognition rampant and strikes being won all over the place by members' organisations in local newspaper offices, the Freelance is suddenly spotted with the word for one of them: the "Chapel". So why do we use this word? Call the Freelance paranoid if you like - on the square, we're not really - but doesn't it have a slightly funny-handshake flavour?

What it does have is the kind of obscure origin that can keep subs (and other necessary professional pedants) arguing for hours. It's generally agreed to come from printers' parlance - after all, they've been organised since roughly 1453 and the NUJ was founded in 1907. But where did they get it? The Freelance has dug up three theories.

First, the sartorial: printers used to keep the ink out of their hair by wearing a folded paper hat - that'd be a capella in Italian or chapeau in modern French, and something inbetween in Genoa at the time. The English, as ever, mangled it. "Almost certainly wrong" say the etymology enthusiasts at

Next, the architectural: much early printing was done in monasteries. The new-fangled technology was installed in spare corners of the establishment - like those subsidiary rooms of worship off the main church called chapels. So a chapel is where the inkies are, and where they meet. And "chapel" is from the mediæval Latin capella, a little cloak - because, says the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the first chapel was "a sanctuary in which St Martin's sacred cloak was preserved". How they'd do that when his claim to fame was giving half to a beggar, we leave to the theologians.

Finally, the conspiratorial: "In order to overcome the provisions of the law governing cessation of work and outside assemblage, the printers took advantage of the prevailing religious tendencies and designated their workroom as a 'Chapel' or house of Worship," says a history of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council archived here. Honest, this isn't a strike, it's an extended period of deep meditation.

Though we'd love the last to be true - and it may have been, somewhere at some time - we have to conclude that freelances should get in touch with their inner cloak.

  • 7 November 2021 We updated the page design and tracked down expired links