Tag Archives: ajar


When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar. Ahahahahahaha

I presume you, like me, first heard that joke in your childhood. You probably also heard “You make a better door than a window,” meaning you can’t be seen through, so get out of the line of sight. You’re a closed door; open up.

So is a door that’s ajar closed or open?

It’s a jarring question. If a door is ajar, you can’t necessarily just walk right in. But it’s not quite closing you out either. You don’t know if it’s meant to be open, or to be closed, or to be… neither. Just to leave a crack to let the light get through, or to allow a bit of fresh air. This door, this boundary, this limen, is in a liminal condition. It is not sealed, but it is not open enough for a person to pass through. It may or may not be open enough for a cat to pass through. The only way to know for sure is to ask Erwin Schrödinger to lend us his, and then observe.

But wait. Schrödinger’s cat is in a closed box, and its state becomes known when the box is opened. What if the box is ajar?

A jar, as we know, is a round container. Usually jars have lids that screw on. They turn, deturn, return. Is an incompletely screwed-on lid ajar?

Can a sliding door be ajar?

In my world, ajar is not a word for a sliding door. Ajar means the possibility of nudging and turning. Of jarring it open or closed. It is just that disturbance that would resolve it.

Is that what ajar comes from? There is a word ajar which means ‘to be in a jarring state’; it’s roughly synonymous with ‘awry’. But the ajar for doors is not that ajar. Its jar comes not from jar as in discord (“a jarring sound”); rather, it is a turn served on char, an old word which means ‘turning back, returning’. So. Returning to closed or to open?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, on char is ‘on the turn, in the act of shutting’. Which would seem to answer the question of whether a door that is ajar is slightly open or slightly closed: by origin, it is pushed towards shut but not fully closed. Who, after all, would push a door just slightly open?

Who but a person who wanted to indicate that the door was openable, perhaps. Awaiting an arrival… or a return. Perhaps the person on the other side is listening to Steely Dan on their album Aja singing “Peg”: “It will come back to you…” (Steely Dan also sing “go back, Jack, and do it again,” but that’s on Pretzel Logic, and it seems to me that the logic of ajar is not so much of a pretzel as of a Möbius loop, the one side being in truth the same as the other.)

Or perhaps the person wants to come out but doesn’t want to. Or doesn’t want to but wants to. Or simply hasn’t gotten the momentum. Or wants to be neither in nor out. Or wants you to be neither in nor out.

Or is a cat, of course. In a perpetual state of uncertainty: in theory neither one nor the other; in reality oscillating and vacillating.

Does every door that opens eventually shut, and does every door that shuts eventually open? When you say “ajar,” your tongue swings shut onto the ridge behind your teeth, and then with a slight hesitation swings open again. Returning is the motion of the tao, and it seems to be the motion of the door. But returning to open or to closed? What is the destiny of the door, what is its assigned role? Open, shut, both, neither? Would Arjuna counsel it to be unajar? Is a door that is barely open or barely closed a real door? Or is it the only real door, the only door that, when you come to it, frames the decision as yours?


You know this one, for sure: “When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar!”

OK, try this one: “When is ajar not ajar? When it’s not a door!”

Perhaps that requires some explanation, lest I leave you with mouths agape. I was playing poker with some friends last night – real ones, not fictional characters – and one of them, Michelle, observed that you can only use ajar on a door, not anything else. Alex, who seldom misses a turn to burnish his cynical and gruff image, in response produced the sentence “Your mouth is ajar.”

And indeed one may on rare occasion see references to mouth(s) ajar – also window(s) ajar. It’s worth noting that mouths ajar would not be the same as mouths agape, as ajar means “slightly open”.

But what, anyway, has a door’s partial openness to do with jars? Were doors once held open with – or for – mason jars (from Arabic jarrah, earthen vessel)? Indeed not, nor has it anything to do with the door having been jarred, i.e., bumped (a word that comes from onomatopoeia for a harsh sound – physical jarring is actually derivative from sonic jarring), though for a time many people thought so. Rather, this jar comes originally from the Germanic word char.

But that’s not the char that has to do with burning, nor the one that has to do with tea, though both involve chores that a charwoman might do. This char, you see, is related to chore – it’s the char in charwoman, and it referred originally to a turn or a returning; the surviving sense is of an occasional turn of work – a little chore. So a door is ajar because doors swing open and return, and one that is not completely returned is still on the turn: a (a variant of on) jar.

This is a word that requires no more effort than closing a door that’s been left ajar (so close it already!). The act of saying ajar, one might say, leaves the mouth ajar – opened but not returned to shut – and the tongue, too: it touches at the tip on the j and then hangs near the palate but not touching it with the retroflex /r/.

It’s a nice, tidy, even pretty little word – the j in the middle is a little unusual, especially in a word so short; it adds a stylish little swing below and dot above, so much nicer than achar, I’d say. It’s raja backwards, and it makes me think of the Steely Dan album Aja, which has (among others) the song “Peg”: “Peg,” Donald Fagen sings, “it will come back to you.” I guess that peg is what the door closes against. The door swings open, and then shut – every time it goes one way, it will go back, Jack, and do it again (OK, that’s a different song). But of course you can always leave it partially open and let the charwoman close it.