Noun > Pigeonhole

Noun – Pigeonhole

Above are literal pigeonholes: little compartments for pigeons to rest in. These have been around since the 1500s.

And, since the 1600s, we’ve also referred to compartments like the ones below as pigeonholes, even though they’re not actually for pigeons:

As you can see, pigeonholes like the ones above let you sort and categorize papers and other small items. Not just into a few broad categories, but into lots of very specific categories.

By the 1800s, we’d started using “pigeonhole” more abstractly, to mean “a narrow role or a narrow category.”

We can still use that meaning of “pigeonhole” today. Often, we turn it into a verb: to pigeonhole people or things is to limit them to a small, narrow role or category, as if you’re sticking them neatly, thoughtlessly, and permanently into a tiny labeled compartment.

PIDGE in hole

Part of speech:
Both a noun (the countable kind: “these pigeonholes)
and a verb (the transitive kind: “they pigeonholed the actor as a villain”).

Other common forms:
pigeonholes, pigeonholed, pigeonholing

How to use it:
This word provides a powerful image and a sharply negative tone: no one appreciates being pigeonholed, and pigeonholing is almost always a lazy, unkind, thoughtless, or small-minded thing to do.

Talk about people pigeonholing things and other people, often without being aware that they’re doing it. “After she made some fantastic contributions to our group project, I felt bad for pigeonholing her as a dumb cheerleader.” “Pay no attention to any online quiz that tries to pigeonhole you into some personality type or another.” “The media have pigeonholed him as a treehugger, ignoring his work on other issues.”

Often we say that people and things get pigeonholed in, into, or as certain narrow, limited roles, types, labels, and categories. “The actor resists being pigeonholed as a dashing villain.”

In Divergent, Beatrice, along with every other teenager in her dystopian world, must devote herself to just one of five factions. Her resistance to being pigeonholed in this way explains the title. She diverges.

“(A winegrower), Mr. Berliner prefers not to pigeonhole his form of agriculture as organic, biodynamic or anything else. His idea is not to follow a recipe, but simply to respond to what he perceives the vineyard wants.”
— Eric Asimov, New York Times, 30 May 2019