Ivory Tower – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Ever been accused of living in an ivory tower? Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean people believe you’ve moved into a pearly fortress with an excellent view. The phrase ivory tower is an idiom used to describe someone disconnected from the real world, often with a few scholarly or rich overtones.

Let’s jump into a breakdown of this phrase to find out what living in an ivory tower really means, where it originated, and how to use it without sounding like an out-of-touch professor.

Ivory Tower Meaning Explained

Ivory Tower Idiom Origin Meaning

We use the term ivory tower in English to refer to a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the practical realities of the real world. It’s often used to describe people, especially academics or scholars, who are deeply engrossed in their own pursuits and seem oblivious to outside concerns.

This expression can also be a double-edged sword because it symbolizes both a place of pure, noble thought and a state of disconnect from real-world problems and experiences. So, really, it boils down to context.

Ivory Tower Origin and Etymology

Our use of the phrase ivory tower begins in 1837 in France. French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve used the term tour d’ivoire in his critique to point out the poetical attitude of poet Alfred de Vigny as opposed to the realities of life. Basically, he was throwing shade at the guy for being aloof.

The phrase was later translated into English and has since been adopted to criticize detached intellectuals, artists and thinkers. I’ve seen the term applied to celebrities and rich people several times.

What Is Another Word for Ivory Tower?

If you want to describe someone’s scholarly seclusion or high, out-of-touch status without resorting to using the same old ivory tower, here are a few alternatives that work just fine.

  • Seclusion
  • Solitude
  • Hermitage
  • Retreat
  • Sanctuary
  • Academic bubble

Ivory Tower Examples in a Sentence

Ivory Tower Idiom Origin Meaning 1

Now let’s descend from the ivory tower and put this idiom to use in a handful of complete sentences, just to give you some well-rounded context.

  • The ivy league university was always criticized for being an ivory tower, disconnected from the issues of the real world.
  • Despite his insane wealth and success, Elon never retreated into an ivory tower.
  • The science professor, while utterly brilliant, often seemed to be speaking from an ivory tower, using terms none of us could begin to understand.
  • To solve these world problems, we need practical solutions, not theories from the ivory tower.
  • I plan to be a world-famous author one day, bigger than JK Rowling, but I’ll never live in an ivory tower.
  • When I met my husband, I had no idea he came from a family that lived their lives in intellectual ivory towers.

“It’s fun and helps take translated literature out of the ‘ivory tower’ and helps combat the idea that reading books from abroad is like eating your vegetables.” (The Los Angeles Times)

Ivory Towers and Glass Castles

You’re now equipped to use the term ivory tower like a pro. Remember, though, life’s not always about intellectual pursuits and abstract ideas. Every now and then, it’s crucial to descend from your metaphorical ivory tower and engage with the world around you.

Or, at the very least, throw down a rope ladder for the rest of us living in super relatable backyard swamps. Now that you fully understand the term, you should be able to apply it properly in any context.

Enjoyed reading about this idiom? Check out some others we covered: