Forms: Also Middle English–1600s deske, (Middle English–1600s desque, 1500s dexe, dext), 1500s–1700s Scottish dask.
Etymology: Middle English deske, apparently immediately < medieval Latin desca ‘cum descis et scamnis, et aliis ornamentis’ (c1250 in Du Cange). The latter is to be referred ultimately to Latin discus (also used in medieval Latin in the sense ‘table’), of which the regular Romanic form remains in Italian desco ‘a deske, a table, a boord, a counting boord; also a forme, a bench, a seat, or stoole’ (Florio). Probably from this Italian desco, the medieval Latin desca (feminine) (like mensa, tabula) was formed.
Desk was in no way actually connected with dish , Old English disc , Middle English disch , although Old English disc , West Germanic disk , was itself an ancient adoption of Latin discus . The Old French representation of Latin discus , Romance desco , Provençal des , was deis , English dais n. Thus dais, desk, dish, disk, all originate in the same word.
An article of furniture for a library, study, church, school, or office, the essential feature of which is a table, board, or the like, intended to serve as a rest for a book, manuscript, writing-paper, etc., while reading or writing, for which purpose the surface usually presents a suitable slope.
The name is applied to articles differing greatly in details of construction and in accessories, according to their particular purpose, which is often indicated by a qualification, as litany-desk, music-desk, prayer-desk, school-desk, writing-desk, etc.
It may be a simple table, board, or shelf fixed at a convenient height for resting a book, etc., while reading or writing, or fitted on a small frame so as to be placed on a table, or upon a taller frame, with legs, etc., so as itself to stand on the floor, or it may be more or less elaborately provided with shelves for books, and with drawers and receptacles for papers, documents, etc., such as are required for use in a library, study, school, or office.
a. As a requisite for reading or writing on, or studying at.
1405 G. Chaucer Franklin’s Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l.420 At Orliens in Studie a book he say Of Magyk naturel, which his felawe..Hadde prively vp on his desk [v.r. deske] ylaft. 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum 299 Leterone or lectorne, deske, lectrinum, etc. 1500 Orol. Sap. in Anglia X. 356 Lenynge hym vpon a deske. 1581 R. Mulcaster Positions v. 34 Incke & paper..a deske & a dustboxe will set them both vp [i.e. a scholar to learn to draw as well as to write]. 1594 H. Plat Jewell House 38 You must have a deske of the cleerest and evenest glasse that is to be bought..Upon this Deske you must fasten the patterne at the foure endes with a little wax. 1615 J. Stephens Ess. & Characters (new ed.) 333 Lawyers Clarke..Hee doth relye upon his maisters practise, large indentures, and a deske to write upon. 1666 S. Pepys Diary 23 Jan. (1974) VIII. 25 I observed the Deske which he hath to remove, and is fastened to one of the armes of his Chayre. 1711 R. Steele Spectator No. 109. ⁋5 He sits with one Hand on a Desk writing. 1785 J. Boswell Jrnl. Tour Hebrides 17 Aug. 41 [Johnson:] Composing a Dictionary requires books and a desk. You can make a poem walking in the fields, or lying in bed. 1839 C. Dickens Nicholas Nickleby ii. 6 Nickleby closed an account-book which lay on his desk. 1842 Ld. Tennyson Audley Court in Poems (new ed.) II. 44 Oh! who would cast and balance at a desk, Perch’d like a crow upon a three-legg’d stool? 1847 Ld. Tennyson Princess ii. 28 To Lady Psyche’s:..There sat along the forms,..A patient range of pupils; she herself Erect behind a desk of satin-wood. 1850 Ld. Tennyson In Memoriam cxxvi. 198 To cramp the student at his desk . View more context for this quotation 1872 J. Morley Voltaire iii. 104 He seems to have usually passed the whole day at his desk.
b. As a repository for writing materials, letters, etc., as well as for writing on. In modern use often a portable box or case opening so as to present a sloping surface.
1548 T. Cooper Bibliotheca Eliotæ (rev. ed.) Pluteus..a littell holowe deske lyke a coffer, whereupon men do write. 1616 W. Shakespeare Comedy of Errors (1623) iv. i. 103 In the Deske That’s couer’d o’re with Turkish Tapistrie, There is a purse of Duckets. View more context for this quotation 1626 F. Bacon Sylua Syluarum §658 Some..for Tables, Cupboards and Desks, as Walnuts. 1692 J. Washington tr. J. Milton Def. People Eng. Pref. p. xv Your Boxes and Desks, stufft with nothing but Trifles. 1720 A. Pope Let. 1 May (1960) 154 I have been obliged to leave unfinished in my desk the heads of two essays. 1866 A. Trollope Belton Estate II. vii. 193 She got out her desk and prepared herself for her letter. 1895 N.E.D. at Desk Mod. The prisoner had forced the desk open and taken the money out of it.
c. In early use, applied also to a shelf, case, or press, on or in which books stand in a library or study. Obsolete.
1400 Promptorium Parvulorum 120 Deske, pluteum. 1483 Cath. Angl. 97 A Deske; pluteus [a book-shelf, book-case, desk]. 1552 J. Leland Itinerary (1710) I. 46 At the Toppe of every Square was a Desk ledgid to set Bookes on Bookes on Cofers withyn them. 1557 T. North tr. A. de Guevara Diall Princes Gen. Prol. f. Aiij One that for his pastime is set round with deskes of bookes. 1669 Hackett Let. in R. Willis & J. W. Clark Archit. Hist. Univ. Cambr. (1886) II. 554 Expended..upon the College Library, either for bookes, or desques. 1717 G. Berkeley Jrnls. Trav. Italy 7 Jan. in Wks. (1955) VII. 245 The books are all contained in desks or presses whose backs stand to the wall. These desks are all low, of an equal height so that the highest books are within reach without the least straining.
a. In a church or chapel: In the general sense of 1, a sloping board on which books used in the service are laid, as the book-board in a pulpit. Hence formerly (and still in U.S.) applied to the seat, stall, or pulpit of the minister, or, (as still in Scotland) to that of the clerk or precentor; in England, to the stalls or choir-seats, and to the reading-desk in the now obsolescent arrangement of pulpit, reading-desk, and clerk’s desk, one above another; where this has been abolished, and a special stall is provided for the reading of the prayers, the latter is sometimes called the ‘prayer-desk’.
1449 in J. Nichols Illustr. Antient Times Eng. (1797) 132 Making of pleyn desques and of a pleyne rodelofte. 1552 in W. Money Parish Church Goods Berks. (1879) 32 A old clothe of baulkyn for the dexe. 1565 Harding in J. Strype Ann. Reformation I. App. xxx. 72 Clappe me not they the bare Bible on the dext. 1604 in J. Barmby Churchwardens’ Accts. Pittington (1888) 140 For a desk to lay the byble on. a1640 W. Fenner Christs Alarm (1646) 19 How reverently should yee sit in your Pewes? how sacredly should we stand in our desks? 1653 G. Firmin Sober Reply 28 My friend when he had done preaching..went downe out of the Deske. 1706 A. Bedford Temple Musick iv. 90 Their Singers stood in the Desks. 1785 W. Cowper Task i. 94 Sweet sleep enjoys the curate in his desk, The tedious rector drawling o’er his head. 1809 E. A. Kendall Trav. Northern Parts U.S. I. i. 4 The pulpit, or, as it is here [i.e. in Connecticut] called, the desk was filled by three, if not four clergymen; a number which, by its form and dimensions, it was able to accommodate. 1830 Ld. Tennyson Sonnet to J. M. K. The humming of the drowsy pulpit-drone..while the worn-out clerk Brow-beats his desk below. 1845 J. H. Parker Gloss. Terms Archit. (ed. 4) I. 226 That at Debtling is of Decorated date; it is made with a desk for a book on four sides. 1870 F. R. Wilson Archit. Surv. Churches Lindisfarne 79 The pulpit, litany desk, and stalls are oaken.
b. A seat or pew in a church. Cf. dais n. 3(b). Obsolete. Scottish.
1560 in Edgar Ch. Life Scotl. (1885) I. 15 Neither the dasks, windocks nor duris be ony wise hurt. 1603 in Edgar Ch. Life Scotl. (1885) I. 15 To big ane removabill dask for his wyff. 1678 in Old Church Life Ballingry (1890) II. 20 Fill up with deskes the emptie roomes of the Church. 1701 in Scott. Notes & Queries I. 12 [To farm] the haill dasks in both churches. 1885 A. Edgar Old Church Life Scotl. I. 16 Down to about the middle of the 17th century there were very few desks or seats in Church.
a. Used typically for the functions or office of the occupant of a desk, esp.
1581 J. Bell tr. W. Haddon & J. Foxe Against Jerome Osorius 108 b Luther doth not take upon him the person of a schoolemaister, nor hath challenged to himselfe the dignitie of high deske, nor ever taught any Schooles of new factions. 1817 T. Dwight Trav. New-Eng. & N.-Y. (1821) II. 277 He [sc. Dr. Backus, a professor of divinity] educated between forty and fifty for the desk. 1836 W. Andrew Hist. Winterton 107 At a time when the pulpit and reading-desk were generally at variance. 1838 Brit. Critic XXIII. 294 Their tendency is, to exalt the Pulpit too far above the Desk; to make the performance of man the very life and soul of all public worship.
b. Work at the desk in an office, etc.; clerical or office work.
1796 E. Burke Two Lett. Peace Regicide Directory France i. 181 Never can they who from the miserable servitude of the desk have been raised to Empire, again submit to the bondage of a starving bureau. 1844 R. W. Emerson Young Amer. in Lect. in Wks. (1906) II. 296 He who merely uses it [the land] as a support to his desk and ledger..values it less.