Boxes and Boxing

By Mark Nichol

Is there any connection between the word for a usually square or rectangular container and the name of the contact sport called “the sweet science”? The pugilistic sense of box may be related to the botanical one and therefore to the general sense of an object in which something is situated or enclosed, but no direct relationship has been traced. However, this post explains the etymological origin of the word in both senses and provides some definitions and usage examples.

Box is ultimately from the word pyxos, the Greek name of the box tree, by way of the Latin term buxis. The wood of the box tree, also called boxwood, is used for making things—including, naturally, boxes. (The tree itself is used for hedges and topiary.) Now, however, a box can be made of virtually any material, and though most boxes consist of square or rectangular faces, they come in many shapes.

By extension, the word has come to refer to seating compartments for spectators at a sports or performing-arts event, receptacles for mail (though mailbox may refer to both physical and electronic correspondence, and “letter box” is used in British English), a manually drawn or electronically produced square or rectangular space, or the defined space in which a batter stands while at bat during a game of baseball. (There is also a catcher’s box adjacent to the batter’s box, and the pitcher’s mound, from its origin as a boxed area, is still sometimes referred to as “the box.”)

Box is also a verb meaning “place in a box,” the act of enclosing something in a box is boxing, and boxy is an adjective meaning “resembling a box.” In addition, many terms incorporate box as the first or second element in an open or closed compound (for example, “box office” and hatbox).

Boxing Day, a holiday in the United Kingdom and various countries that were part of the British Empire, is said to stem from the tradition of giving boxes containing money or presents to servants and tradespeople on the day after Christmas (or near the holiday). But in the United States, the holiday is not observed and is little known; boxing is in American English solely a reference to the sport in which fists are used to strike or defend oneself from an opponent. The term derives from the verb box, which means “beat, strike, or thrash with one’s hands or fists.” Box itself can be a noun in this sense, though it is rarely used as such.


9 Responses to “Boxes and Boxing”

  • D.A.W.

    alms box, black box, cigar box, eggbox, feedbox, firebox, fusebox, hotbox, iron box, jewelry box, jukebox, lockbox, mailbox, phone box, pillbox, sandbox, sweatbox, switchbox, tinderbox…
    Now in the times of e-mail: the spam box!

  • D.A.W.

    Back to China, there is a fascinating thing called a “Chinese puzzle box” that I have never seen. Apparently, it has a box within a box within a box, and it is made to be a puzzle to open one up.
    I have asked my foreign students to get me one overseas, like in the town market. One of my students from India said that he knew of a place to get one at. THE problem was that on his next trip to India, he immediately caught severe influenza, and he was bedridden for three weeks. Not a chance to go to the flea market at all!

  • D.A.W.

    “To be sent on a one-way trip in a wooden box” is not a favorable or pleasant thing at all!

  • D.A.W.

    I went to the Wikipedia looking for something analogous to “a barrel of monkeys”, but using the word “box”, instead. Is there one?

  • D.A.W.

    Here is something that I knew already, but I am now quoting it directly from the Wikipedia:
    “Black box – something for which the internal operation is not described but its function is.”
    I had NO notion of looking up something like this online. (I have known what a “black box” is for ages, it seems.)
    Also, in American English, “the idiot box” is the television set, just as in Britain, they call it “the tube” or “the boob tube”.
    The phrase “booby hatch” is probably related in some way.
    Catholics have the “confession box” or “confession booth”, too

  • D.A.W.

    Those of us who heard tales of the Old West (such as on TV) long ago have heard of such things as a box canyon, a box cactus, and a barrel cactus. Also, one of the expressions for “nonsense” is “a box of hot air”.
    In the U.S., it is traditional for speakers, such as in a political movement, to stand on a stump to speak, and the word “stump” has even become a verb because of this. It think that in lots of other countries, it is traditional to “stand on a box” to speak to the public. This might even lead to the British expression of “to stand for office”, rather than to “run for office”.

  • D.A.W.

    Just yesterday, I read a mention of the “Boxer Rebellion” in China in the year 1900. That came up in the biography of some diplomat or military officer who was involved. I think that “Boxer” is some obscure rendering of a Chinese word.
    American troops were also involved, as well as other foreigners, in protecting foreign (to China) traders, property, etc., in places like Shanghai and Canton. Because of this, there was an aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy named the USS “Boxer”, as well as the “Bataan”, “Belleau Wood”, “Cowpens”, “Essex”,
    “Monterey”, “Nassau”, “Oriskany”, “San Jacinto”, “Shangri La”, and other obscure places in American military history.
    For example, the USS “Nassau” was named for a little-known raid on the Bahamas during the Revolutionary War, and the “Shangri La” was named for a fictional place in Tibet, known for being in the novel “Lost Horizon”, and the films that followed it.

  • D.A.W.

    To TheBluebird11: In dice, the side with six dots, turned sideways, looks like a railroad boxcar. Two of these give “boxcars”.
    To the author: “the botanical one”??? There is a kind of a domestic shrub called the “boxwood” – especially because of the way that is it usually trimmed by people – but trees and shrubbery are two different things.
    Shrubbery includes azaleas, boxwoods, holly bushes, and many other kinds of smaller domesticated plants that are not trees. (My two parents were deeply into horticulture, as were my grandmothers.)

  • TheBluebird11

    Yes, I seem to remember older books where an adult would usually threaten to box a child’s ear if the child sassed or misbehaved.
    Not sure how boxcars (dice roll of double sixes) might tie in, maybe just some vague resemblance?

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