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To “call on the carpet” means to severely reprimand or scold the person who is subject to the figurative summons. In many instances, and probably in its original meaning, it referred to an authority figure chastising a subordinate. In modern usage, however, it might be used to describe a peer-to-peer castigation or even a subordinate admonishing a superior.
The actual phrase “call on the carpet” is an idiom with its usage limited primarily to the United States. To describe a similar reprimand in Britain was once referred to as simply "carpeting" someone. This meaning of the word has fallen into disuse and is rarely heard in modern British spoken or written language.
There are a couple of theories about the origins of the phrase. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on which is correct. The most common explanation of the phrase’s history describes an interaction between a master and servant. The servant’s work would primarily be conducted in uncarpeted rooms, while the master’s quarters and living area would be carpeted. The servant received a literal “call on the carpet” and was summoned to the master’s carpeted area of the home to be reprimanded, giving the idiom its meaning of a scolding.
The other theory is that the carpet referred to a covering on a table at which judges or magistrates would sit to consider various matters. When the phrase “call on the carpet” came into popular use in the 19th century, it was often used to refer to a matter being considered by an authority. Eventually the phrase “on the carpet” to describe something under consideration became “call on the carpet,” and the meaning changed, probably because it was common for the issue being discussed to be misbehavior and the authorities seated at the table might follow their discussion by reprimanding the person before them.
Other theories, though not as commonly accepted as the first two, exist about the origins of the phrase. One says the word “carpet” with the meaning of a reprimand began around English racetracks where underlings stood on a particular piece of carpet to receive scoldings. Another states that in the Victorian era in certain businesses a man was allowed to have carpet in his office only after reaching a certain level of promotion. Thus authorities had carpeted offices and to receive a “call on the carpet” was to be summoned before someone with rank.
I can tell you from personal experience that being "called on the carpet" is one of the worst feelings ever. I remember when I worked in a large buffet-style restaurant and the boss told all of us to make sure our stations were ready for the health inspector before we left for the day. There was a new hire in my department who worked the night shift, so I told him to make sure he cleaned up after himself.
The next morning, the health inspector came in and found a can of powdered cleanser sitting on a shelf above a mixer. That is clearly a health code violation, since the can could fall into the mixer and contaminate the food
. It was a rookie mistake, and a rookie made it after I left. It was a five point deduction on our overall rating, and the boss was beyond angry. He called me on the carpet and I had to explain that the new guy must not have been thinking straight. It didn't matter. I was his supervisor and I should have warned him about things like that.
I always figured it meant being called into a carpeted office or space. English is a funny language, rich with idioms that used to have much more meaning than they do now. We still use them, but have completely forgotten their origins.
English's idioms are part of what can make it a difficult language to learn, as well as its original verb use and creative spelling and grammar. I think the verbs are the difficult parts of most languages, however, for whatever reason.
"Call on the carpet" does rather bring to mind a man being reprimanded in a luxurious office. So it's still apt for its current meaning.
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