Origin of ivory towerTranslation of French tour d'ivoire : tour, tower + de, of + ivoire, ivory.
(plural ivory towers)
1911, calque of French figurative use, based on literal biblical phrase.
Originally Song of Solomon 7:4, used as simile for the woman’s beautiful neck:
- Thy neck is as a tower of ivory (King James Version)
Figurative sense from French tour d'ivoire, coined by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve in the poem Pensés d’Août (Thoughts of August) (1837) to compare the poet Alfred de Vigny (more isolated) with Victor Hugo (more socially engaged), in the line:
- Et Vigny, plus secret,
- Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi rentrait.
- And Vigny, more discreet,
- As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon.
First attested in English in a translation of Laughter by French philosopher Henri Bergson (translation 1911 by Frederick Rothwell and Cloudesley Shovell Henry Brereton). Term popularized in The Ivory Tower (1917) by Henry James, though used in different sense (millionaires, not professors).