“What exactly is a pigeonhole anyway?" semi-creepy fast food mascot Jack in the Box wondered on Twitter last month. "Last I checked pigeons live in parks.” Reader @amyh914 put up the bat signal and called us into action.
Originally, pigeonhole had only a literal meaning: a small recess or compartment for a domestic pigeon to roost or nest in, usually as part of a pigeon “loft” or coop. That term has been around since at least 1577. A little over a century later, in 1688, the term was also applied to similar small compartments built into desks or bookshelves for storing or sorting mail, papers or writing supplies.
A third meaning, first recorded in 1864, and the one you most often hear today, is a “narrow, sometimes oversimplified category.” Used as a verb, it’s the act of placing someone in such a category (among actors, it’s also called type casting). The consensus among etymologists is that this usage comes from the original pigeonhole being extended metaphorically, with the meaning that the category the person or thing is being assigned to is as narrow and confined as a literal pigeonhole is.