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Furniture tables are used to hold one or more items off the ground. Generally speaking, objects held on tables are easier to reach. They may also be more hygienic, since tables are usually cleaner than the floor or ground.
A piece of furniture designed to hold a person off the ground is a chair, couch, bed, bench, ladder, or something else. However, tables have been known to hold up many non-human life forms. Plants, flowers, and presumptuous cats are common examples.
There may be some confusion, since there are also a number of conceptual tables that are vaguely related. This entry concentrates on the physical objects that hold things up, rather than organisational or theoretical constructs that contain information.
The classic table consists of three or more legs and a top. Table legs are columns of the same length that may be rounded, or may feature four or more flat vertical sides. The table top is a relatively thin slab, with a flat surface that rests parallel to the ground. The slab may be square, rectangular, round, or any shape that is deemed practical or aesthetically pleasing. The table is formed by attaching the small ends of the legs at or near the edge of the top at sufficiently wide intervals to ensure that the table will not tip over when heavy objects are placed off-centre.
It's extremely important for the legs to be strong enough to support anything placed upon the table. If a leg breaks, all items on the table will slide or fall off. In this situation, it becomes preferable to place things back on the floor again. More likely, though, the items will be placed on another table, as there seem to be an awful lot of them around.
How to Use a Table
There are two common methods. With one, a person walks up to the table and adds or subtracts an item or items from the top. In this case, it is generally wise to watch for any sharp edges on the table. For the other method, the person sits in a chair in front of the table and interacts with various items without necessarily changing their number.
In both cases, items tend to accumulate on the table surface. While some tables are periodically cleared of detritus, others seem to retain their items virtually forever. It is perhaps because of this that the verb form 'to table' has been coined to describe any issue that has been removed from consideration indefinitely.
Other uses have, of course, been devised for the table. For instance, tables are used to temporarily hold items that will shortly be consumed. The items go directly from the table and into the person. Examples include meals, snacks, drinks, and books.
Perhaps the most peculiar example is the use of a kitchen table, office desk, or opulent conference table for sex. Any number of positions and behaviours may be involved, as long as a table significantly supports the weight of at least one person.
The sexual appeal may be that these tables are placed in relatively public areas, unlike the more commonly-used bed, to be found in a perfectly private bedroom. In their appeal to mild exhibitionists, tables share a certain jolly kinship with open windows and lifts.
The downside is that some tables aren't designed to support a person's weight. Also, some conference tables contain discreet microphones or video conferencing equipment that will broadcast the room's goings on if they are inadvertently triggered. Since the risk of getting caught is very real, discretion is advised.
Variations on the Classic Table
Over the millennia, many innovations have been developed that modify the table's design and use. For instance, some circular tables have a central column that ends in a large round base or a number of outward-extending feet. Some rectangular affairs have equally-spaced feet arranged in the style of a centipede. Some tables substitute vertically-placed slabs for legs, and console tables use an adjoining wall in place of two feet. Though the following list of functional variations is representative, it necessarily omits many minor alternatives.
Coffee tables are a short, squat variation placed near chairs or sofas. They are so popular that an entire culture has arisen from them, as exemplified by the modern coffee house. Coffee tables hold coffee or tea and all their accompaniments within reach, without obstructing the view of one's fellow imbibers.
Ironically, most coffee tables aren't designed to withstand stains from spilt beverages. This prompted the invention of the coaster - a drink-sized mat made of cork, plastic or any other material that effectively absorbs or blocks liquids.
Coffee tables are sometimes also used to hold up cultural relics. In particular, coffee table books are designed to look nice, impress visitors, and serve as a starting-point for conversation. In fact, conversation is so encouraged around coffee tables that the alliterative phrase 'table talk' is now a synonym for casual chit-chat.
Another variation occurs when wheels are attached to the table legs on their small ends near the ground. With this enhancement, one can easily move the table from place to place.
A table with wheels, designed primarily to move objects around rather than merely hold them up, is called a trolley or cart. It's a peculiar addition to the table repertoire, used mostly to transfer objects from one stationary desk to another.
Oddly enough, most people don't consider trolleys to be tables. But then, most people never stop to consider exactly what a table is. Perhaps they should.
Tables placed outdoors must withstand wear and tear from the weather. Therefore, outdoor tables are frequently made of sturdy plastic or wood coated with sealant. There are also metal tables coated in sealant, but they tend to rust anyway.
One example of solid outdoor construction is the picnic table, an extra-long variation usually made of wood. Used to host feasts in times of warm weather, picnic tables have extra surface space to place food onto. Their associated benches are either free-standing or attached to the table via the legs for reasons of stability.
Another outdoor variation is the typically round table designed to hold up an enormous umbrella. The patio table provides shade for those who wish to sit comfortably outdoors. Because of increasing concerns about skin cancer, it is a newly-popular form of patio furniture.
Tray tables are used when one's mobility is limited. For example, the breakfast tray extends over the lap area while one stays in bed. This keeps food on a level surface, where it's less likely to spill when the bed shifts. Other trays hold pens and paper, artists' supplies, or portable computers for people who intend to stay seated. Tray tables are especially common on hospital beds for obvious reasons.
There is some confusion about tray tables versus trays. Many things called trays are not actual tables. They are counters attached to a vertical surface. These have either no legs at all or else two legs attached diagonally between the tray and its support. Nappy-changing tables in restrooms and food trays attached to the back of aeroplane seats are good examples of this phenomenon.
These include craft tables, kitchen cutting tables, and potting tables. In fact, the most basic form of work table is arguably a seated person. A virtual table is formed by sitting on a chair, which provides the table 'legs' while the human lap forms the 'top.' This is uncomfortable and thus done only when a physical table is unavailable.
One particularly unique example is the slanted table used for drawing or architectural drafting. It's slightly tilted to reduce the wrist strain that could cause a repetitive strain injury. A small edge is adjoined at the bottom to hold tools like pencils, rulers, and chalks.
The workbench is a mis-named project table used by carpenters, mechanics, and machinists. Workbenches are of sturdy construction, with slats and/or clamps to keep items in place while they're being worked on. Workbenches may have dangerous tools on or near them, so never take the name literally and sit on a workbench.
Examination tables are used by doctors, surgeons, veterinarians, and coroners. Similar to these are the adjusting tables used by chiropractors and the massage tables used by massage therapists. Many of these technically violate the rule that tables do not hold up human beings. It's another case where people have incorrectly named an item, perhaps because the phrases 'surgical bed' and 'massage bed' manage to sound both more personal and less encouraging.
People sit in front of desks for very long periods of time. A desk can be further identified by the items upon it. These may include:
- Office supplies - Pens, pencils, sticky notes, stapler, tape dispenser, scissors, hole-punch
- Computer equipment - CPU, monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, microphone
- Non-computerised data - Papers, file folders, rolodex, reference books
- Other handy items - Telephone, calendar, fax machine
Desks usually include drawers. These hold the ever-increasing number of items that tend to accumulate when anyone sits in one location for a significant percentage of their time. These are mounted beneath the table top or stacked into one or more horizontal columns. Stacks of drawers may be used instead of table legs, placed so as to leave room for the seated person. Desks may also have a piece on top to hold additional items. Called a hutch, this accessory typically includes a bookshelf in addition to drawers or cabinets.
Office managers occasionally get upset at the accumulating objects (ie, mess) upon and inside desks. In fact, hot desking saves significant expense by reducing desk clutter. It's amazing how much gets thrown away when it must otherwise be moved on a daily basis.
However, other offices encourage employees to treat their desks like a home away from home. This is achieved primarily by allowing workers some minimal privacy. Some modern desks therefore sport vertical panels that shield the person from view. When these panels are modular and extend above the chest, the enclosed area is called a cubicle in the US. Some consider these to be a symbol of today's detached, technology driven office culture.
Kitchen and Dining Tables
The kitchen table is arguably the defining hallmark of a family's dining area. If everyone routinely eats in front of the television set, side tables may also be added to the living room. The house or flat may even sport a dining room with a relatively large table in addition to the smaller kitchen table. The dining table may extend to seat visiting guests via the addition of an additional leaf - in some cases, the leaf is folded up and supported by a leg, in others it folds out of the centre after sliding the top sections apart. It may also simply be an extra section of wood, added to the middle of the table.
In days gone by, the kitchen table and its rituals represented the unity of the nuclear family. Breakfast gathered the family members together before they dispersed to their individual tasks. Dinner, called supper in some locations, marked the end of individualistic work and the return to shared family living.
This thematic phenomenon is often referenced in television and film. Arguments at the kitchen table indicate familial discord, while silence carries an air of social foreboding. Festive table settings, meanwhile, denote prosperity or familial bliss. A ridiculously long table with people at either end signifies cold, overly formal relations.
However, modern families use the kitchen table less and less. Contributing to this decline are the growing popularity of fast food restaurants, the blurring between work and leisure time, and the development of new and distracting media. While some families carry on the old tradition, others use the kitchen table only for special occasions. For a growing minority, the kitchen table lingers on as a nostalgic memorial to bygone idealism.
Restaurant, Café and Pub Tables
Restaurants and pubs (called bars in some locations) keep most or all of their tables inside and visible to passers by through large front windows. Pub tables are distinctly less ornamental, sometimes much taller, and usually more stained. Cafes, meanwhile, often place most or all of their relatively small tables outdoors.
Most tables in eating and drinking establishments are freestanding and designed for two or four customers. Some can be combined to support larger parties. The alternative is the booth, where a table adjoining a wall sits between two benches. Booths are sometimes preferred for their higher degree of privacy. However, booths can't usually be combined. Only one extra chair can be added to the side opposite the wall.
While pub tables are preferred for friendly socialising and cafés for their leisurely view of rushed commuters, restaurant tables can variably be places for atmospheric relaxation, romance and couplehood, or formal and informal business discourse. The more expensive the establishment, the more complex the restaurant table setting usually is. Someone used to ordering from a picture menu near a cash register may find upscale dining tables bemusing for their profusion of menus, napkins, condiments, cutlery, plates, cups, and glasses.
Tables in dining establishments are extremely high maintenance. In busier places, a host or hostess often stops customers from pointlessly seeking a free table. Instead, their waiting list and notated seating chart aid them in politely ferrying customers to tables as they become available. The waiter or waitress then takes the customer's purchase order and carries the prepared food and/or drinks to the table. Such staffers are said to 'wait on tables' because they must remain nearby until the customers finish eating so they can collect their tip from the tabletop. The ritual is then ended with the cleaning of the table and the removal of any unhygienic remainders in preparation for the next group of guests.
In cases where minimal privacy is desired, a cloth that extends towards the floor is thrown over the tabletop. This occurs most often with restaurant and cafe tables, but dining room tables and purely ornamental tables may be similarly clad. Such additions, called tablecloths, are a prerequisite for the leisure activity known as footsie. In the game of footsie, a person flirts with their seated neighbour by secretively rubbing their foot against the other's leg.
Similar to a tablecloth, a table skirt is a piece of fabric attached to the outer edges of a table rather than being draped over it. As with tablecloths, table skirts create a formal atmosphere. Luckily for us, tables do not create further confusion by wearing tuxedos, dresses, or constrictive undergarments. Table skirts might, then, more properly be named table kilts. The author defers to tradition, however, since we seem to already have problems with people impolitely looking under tablecloths and table skirts.
Table skirts are found most often on display tables that show off their held up objects in eye-catching ways. They may be decorated with streamers, complemented with balloons, or laden with gifts like fold-out brochures, novelty pens, buttons and key chains. Display tables tend to draw visitors in, due to the tradition of their offering cheap giveaways and tickets to a prize raffle for the cost of a signature.
In museums and art galleries, very different display tables house historical artefacts, photographs, and/or three-dimensional art. The objects rest beside small paper descriptions within the tabletop, while a glass cover protects them from greedy hands and premature decay.
This large, sturdy variation creates an impressive yet comfortable space for corporate or organisational members and their guests to discuss important matters. In fact, the term 'negotiating table' has arisen to describe the informal social space in which one makes business arrangements when it's impractical to meet at a physical table.
Conference tables are most often long and rectangular, although other shapes are also seen. In one odd twist, some tables used for video conferencing are trapezoids. With the fatter end near the camera, all those seated at the table are equally visible.
Some conference tables are so massive that they must be carefully disassembled before being removed from the room. Unusual materials like granite and marble are reasonably common. In a few rare cases, conference table installations require heavy machinery and the prior approval of building safety inspectors.
Conference tables may also feature fancy electronic gadgets. These include pop-up power outlets, network connections for laptop computers, controls for room lights and/or audiovisual systems, and diallers for built-in speakerphones. Heaven only knows what they'll come up with next.
Conference tables should be viewed with a sense of humour, since they would otherwise be intimidating. For your average office wonk, making an embarrassment of yourself at a conference table is a very good way to lose your job. When near one, it always pays to be on your best behaviour.
In some cases, the purely functional use of the table has become secondary to its use as a surface for gaming activities. The term 'to turn the tables (on someone)' describes the sort of sudden change in fortune that can occur while using a table for play.
One example is the use of tables in gambling establishments. The usual etiquette is to sit or stand in front of the table on the opposite side of the gambling hall staffer and place your bet. Examples include craps and backgammon tables, as well as tables containing roulette wheels or wheels of fortune.
Alternatively, square tables have been especially designed for playing card games at home. Most card tables have legs that fold into the underside of the tabletop for easier storage. In deference to the method by which one reveals their hand at the conclusion of many card games, the phrase 'put one's cards on the table' describes the practice of giving all the pertinent information to another person. Other tables for chess or draughts are similarly available. Immobile chess tables are even located in some outdoor areas for public use.
Other recreational tables take up considerable space, prompting the addition of recreation rooms in wealthier homes. One good example is the snooker or pool table, a massive rectangular affair covered in green felt on which balls are propelled by long sticks into discreet pockets. Table tennis provides another example. Here, a small net is added to the tabletop's middle, and a tiny white ball is bounced from one side to another. A final example is the table used in table football, where small figures attached to metal rods are turned and jiggled in hopes of sending a tiny ball into the opposing side's goal.
Another sports imitator, the air hockey table, appears mainly in arcades. The polished white tabletop features lines similar to those seen on the ice at a hockey match. Once a game is begun, raised table edges blow a gentle wind across the surface. It's just enough to make a plastic puck seem almost frictionless, allowing the players to volley it back and forth with bumpers until the puck sinks with a clatter into one of the goal-like slots.
The Most Famous Table Ever
The Round Table used by the legendary King Arthur and his knights embodies much of what people like about the classic table. It's attractive, useful, and cleverly-designed. The Round Table also visually represents equality among peers due to its shape.
The Round Table functioned primarily as both a conference table and a dining table, waited on in this case by servants. In fact, the two functions typically occurred at once in the medieval tradition of the banquet feast, a ritual similar in some ways to today's business lunch.
The Round Table was also the site of a number of important elements in Arthurian legend. These include the convening of Arthur's order of knights, the trial of Lancelot, and the miraculous vision of the Holy Grail that began what was arguably the greatest fictional quest of all time.