Ever wondered why several items of clothing can never be found in the singular? Now when it comes to socks, shoes and glove then it is quite obvious, but what about trousers and tights? Why can’t you have a trouser or a tight?
Obviously clothing has been around a long time and therefore so have the many names for same. But where do these terms come from? Who named them? And what do they mean?
To find an order proved difficult, sexism was always a likely criticism but, having played with several ideas, ended up taking them in alphabetical order, which also makes it easier to search. Oh, and to find the reason why 'trousers' are plural, see 'breeches'.
Anorak – not seen in English until 1924, this comes from Greenland Eskimo anoraq which simply describes this hooded jacket.
Apron – one of a number of words, adder and umpire are others, which began as ‘a napron’, and continued to be used until the 16th century, but through a process known as ‘faulty separation’ became ‘an apron’. Coming to English from Old French naperon ‘small table cloth’ and ultimately from the Latin mappa ‘napkin’ and further back still to ‘matting’.
Bags – looking at the singular ‘bag’ this is an Old Scandinavian word baggi meaning ‘pack bundle’ around 1200 and only latterly used to mean ‘small sack’. It has a common origin with ‘bellows’ and ‘belly’.
Bandana – first seen in English in 1752, it coming from the Hindi bandhnu which is a method of dyeing (basically the same as the modern tie-dye), itself from Sanskrit badhnati ‘binds’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bhendh ‘to bind’.
Bathrobe – not seen before 1894, this a composite of two words: ‘bath’ can be traced to Proto-Indo-European ‘to warm’; and ‘robe’ which shares an origin with, of all things, ‘rob’ and presumably using both as vestments taken as spoils.
Bearskin – another composite, this seen since the early 19th century, and: ‘bear’ of Germanic origins means ‘the brown one’; and ‘skin’ ultimately from Proto-Indo-European sken ‘to cut off’ and clearly used first and foremost as a verb.
Bedsocks – not seen until the early 20th century, another composite: ‘bed’ is from Proto-Indo-European bhedh ‘to dig, pierce’ and showing the early beds required a bit of digging to allow for the lumpier bits of the body; and ‘socks’, an early 14th century word which began either as Greek sykchos or a similar Asiatic origin, both actually describing a type of shoe.
Belt – seen in English since the 5th century, the word is a Germanic loan word from Latin balteus ‘girdle, sword belt’.
Beret – unknown in English until 1827, this is from Old Gascon berrt meaning simply ‘cap’. Perhaps both the idea of a cap attached to a cape is seen as a Gaulish word related to Latin birrus ‘large hooded cloak’.
Bib – is found in English since 1570, this derived from a now lost verb bibben meaning ‘to drink’ and clearly related to ‘imbibe’.
Bikini – coined in 1948 and, as many will be aware, takes its name from the Bikini atoll of the Marshall Islands where the A-bomb test took place in June 1946. Note the idea of a ‘monokini’, seen since 1964, was down to the mistaken belief the first syllable was a Greek prefix meaning ‘two’, when it is a local word from pik ‘surface’ and ni ‘coconut’.
Blazer – not known until 1880, beginning as British university slang and derived from ‘blaze’ in referring to the red flannel jackets worn by the boating club of Lady Margaret, St John College, Cambridge.
Bloomers – coined in 1851 and named after US feminist reformer Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-94) who helped to promote them. Her surname comes from Old English bloma meaning ‘iron worker’.
Boa – as a name for a fur from 1836, it alludes to the snake due to its shape, the word boa is Latin an simply means ‘large snake’.
Bodice – first seen in 1560, this is a very odd spelling as it is the plural of ‘body’. Not difficult to see why ‘body’ for this tight-fitting garment covered the torso, less easy is why it should be plural. ‘Body’ comes from a Germanic term where leib meant simply ‘life’.
Bonnet – first seen in Britain in 14th century Scotland as bonat ‘brimless hat for men’, this coming from Old French bonet an abbreviation of chapel de bonet ‘kind of cloth used as a headdress’, and Latin bonitum ‘material for hats’.
Bowler – named in 1861 and from a J. Bowler, a 19th century London hat manufacturer. There were two other ‘Bowlers’ associated with hats: John Bowler of Surrey and William Bowler of Southwark.
Blouse – again seen in the 19th century and specifically 1822, this is a French word originally meaning ‘smock of a workman or peasant’. It is thought to be derived from Provencal (lano) blouso ‘short (wool)’ or, less likely, from a city of Upper Egypt named Pelusium which was an important clothing manufacturing centre.
Brassiere – known as a ‘bra’ from 1923, the longer version is an 18th century French word originally meaning ‘child’s chemise, shoulder strap’.
Breeches – seen since around 1200, this is an odd double plural. Here Old English brec meant ‘breeches’ before it was pluralised, for brec was already the plural form of broc meaning ‘garment for the legs and trunk’. Now originally the garment was one sided, thus when pluralised it referred to both legs which, with the upper part, crossed over and were tied together to form a single item but clearly plural. That the item was intended to be worn in two halves is likely the reason for it coming from Proto-Indo-European bhreg or ‘break’.
Britches – is a variant of ‘breeches’ and seen as britch from 1620 (the singular) and as ‘britches’ from 1905.
Burberry – a company established in London in 1856 by Thomas Burberry (1835-1926) who specialised in outdoor attire.
Burnous – is from more than 2,000 years ago and a Berber word abernus and shares an origin with the Greek word for ‘cloak’.
Busby – first seen in 1807, this fur hat worn by hussars it was earlier used to describe ‘a bushy tall wig’ in 1764. The origins are unknown but it is both a place name and a surname and seems likely to come from one of these sources.
Bustle – is first seen in 1788, of uncertain origin but possibly from German buschel meaning ‘bunch, pad’ or as in the sound made by these dresses as in a ‘rustling motion’.
Camisole – recorded in England by 1816, this comes from the French where Provencal camisola ‘mantle’ is a diminutive of camisa ‘shirt’.
Cape – seen from the middle of the 16th century, this Old English word has the same origins as Latin cappa ‘hooded cloak’.
Cardigan – first coined in 1868, this was named after James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868) who apparently wore such an item when leading the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava. His title comes from the Anglicised version of the Welsh place name Ceredigion meaning ‘Ceredig’s land’, this Welsh chieftain lived in the 5th century.
Chaps – recorded in 1844, this is American English and taken from Mexican Spanish chaparreras named as they protected from the chaparro ‘evergreen oak’ but used here to refer to scrubland in general.
Chemise – seen in the 12th century, this shares an origin with ‘Camisole’ and originally meant ‘shirt’.
Chiton – seen from 1850, this a form of Greek khiton ‘frock, tunic, mail coat’ and worn by both sexes.
Choker – speaks for itself, but we do need to point out this tight-fitting necklace wasn’t named until 1928.
Cloak – a late 13th century word, this from Old French cloque ‘travelling cloak’, and ultimately sharing an origin with ‘bell’ and ‘clock’.
Clog – from the early 14th century, this comes from Old English clogge meaning ‘lump of wood’ and shortly used for the shoe, too. Now the earlier usage is unknown, it certainly does come from the very ‘to clog (up)’ as this comes from the noun – but interestingly, and I make no judgement here, clogge was also used to describe large pieces of jewelry and large testicles.
Coat – a 14th century term ‘outer garment’ and from Frankish kotta ‘coarse cloth’. Not used for animal covering or a layer covering a surface until the 1660s.
Coif – late 13th century, a close-fitting cap from Old French coife ‘headgear’.
Collar – first seen at the end of the 12th century, this originally applied to the collar on a suit of armour and thus it comes as no surprise to find this is from Proto-Indo-European kwol-o ‘neck’.
Comforter – as a scarf from 1823 and an agent noun from ‘comfort’, itself from the Latin intensive prefix com with fortis ‘strong’.
Corset – from 1795 century and clearly a French word, it is a diminutive of cors ‘body’
Cowl – a 6th century word, ultimately from Latin cuculus ‘monk’s hood’.
Crinoline – dating from 1830, this is from the French crinoline ‘hair cloth’.
Cummerbund – seen from 1610, here Hindi kamarband meaning ‘loin band’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bhendh ‘to bind’.
Denims – seen since 1690, from the French serge de Nimes a French town from Gaulish nemo meaning ‘sanctuary’.
Derby – since 1870, a hat worn and probably associated with the race, itself named from the 12th Earl of Derby, and a place name meaning ‘the farmstead where deer are seen’ from Old Scandinavian deor by.
Domino – seen since 1801, this perhaps ‘hood with a cloak worn by canons or priests’ and comparing the black cloak with the tiles (for the game) this is from Latin dominus ‘lord, master’.
Doublet – early 14th century, from Old French doublet a diminutive of duble and from Latin duplus ‘two more’.
Drawers – first seen in 1560, these are simply garments which are ‘drawn on’.
Dungarees – since 1868 made from dungaree, itself from Hindi dungri ‘coarse calico’ and from the village Dongri in India.
Farthingale – since 1550, this hooped dress is from French / Spanish where verdugo ‘young shoot of a tree’ and the contrivance was originally made from cane shoots.
Fatigues – seen from 1836, this came from the duties given to a soldier (and thus the clothes he wore when performing same) and simply describes the soldier’s weariness. Ultimately this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European affatim ag ‘sufficiently set in motion’.
Fedora – since 1887 a type of hat, it was named from a popular play by Victorien Sardo (1831-1908) Fedora. The name comes from a Russian princess Fedora Romanodd, originally portrayed by Sarah Bernhardt who, famed for wearing manish clothes whenever she could, sported a centre-creased soft-brimmed hat. The name is ultimately from the Greek theodoros ‘gift of the gods’.
Fez – from 1802, and the city of Fez in Morocco, a place name meaning ‘pickaxe’ in Arabic. Legends states the founder of the city were marked out by the pickaxe of silver and gold by Idris I of Morocco.
Frock – since the middle of the 14th century and from French froc ‘monk’s clothing’. Probably a loan word from Germanic hroc ‘mantle, coat’.
Frog – a clothes fastening since 1719, possibly from Latin floccus ‘tuft of wool’.
Gaiters – since 1775, from Middle French guestre and Frankish wrist ‘instep’.
Galoshes – from the 14th century, this is probably from the Greek kalopous ‘shoemaker’s last’ itself made up of kalon ‘wood’ and pous ‘foot’.
Garibaldi – since 1862 this blouse is named after Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82), liberator of Italy.
Gauntlet – since the 15th century used as ‘glove’ and originally from Germanic wintan ‘to wind’.
Girdle – since the 8th century, from a Germanic word meaning ‘to gird’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ghr-dh ‘to grasp’.
Glengarry – the bonnet of Scotland dates from 1841, it is a place name where Glengarry means ‘the valley of the river Garry’.
Glove – since the 8th century and from Old Scandinavian ga a collective prefix and lofi ‘hand’.
Gown – since 1300, from Old French goune ‘habit, gown’. Probably from Latin gunna ‘skin, hide’.
Guernsey – since 1839, a vest of wool worn by seamen and from the island where it was first associated (as with Jersey) and possibly Old Scandinavian for ‘mill island’.
Habit – since the 13th century, it is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ghabh ‘to give, to receive’.
Homburg – since 1910 and popularised by Edward VII after he visited the town of Bad Homburg in Germany, a place name meaning ‘the bath (spa) of the high fortification’.
Hood – since the 9th century, this is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kadh ‘to cover’.
Hose – since the 13th century, this is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European keu ‘to cover, conceal’.
Jacket – since the 15th century, this is ultimately from Jacque, the generic name given to all French peasants.
Jeans – since the middle of the 15th century this has been named as it was associated with Genoa, a place name meaning ‘knee’, a description of an angled topographical feature.
Jersey – since 1580 the knitted cloth used to produce the woollen tunic, itself a place name meaning ‘Geirr’s island’.
Jodhpurs – since 1899, the name comes from a place in India, itself named after local ruler Rao Jodha who founded the place in 1459.
Jumper – since 1853, the origin and meaning is completely unknown.
Kerchief – since the early 13th century, it comes from the French couvrechief meaning ‘cover head’.
Kilt – since 1730, comes from a Germanic word meaning ‘to truss, tuck up’.
Kimono – since 1630, and a Japanese expression meaning ‘a thing to put on’.
Kirtle – since the 11th century, it is derived from a word meaning ‘short’ and simply means ‘tunic’.
Knickerbockers – since 1831, this is the alias used by Washington Irving when he published History of New York in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. He borrowed this name from his friend Herman Knickerbocker, his name meaning ‘toy marble maker’.
Knickers – since 1866, a shortened form of ‘knickerbockers’.
Leotard – since 1881, named after Jules Leotard (1830-1870) a popular French trapeze artist who wore such a garment.
Levis – since 1926, named after manufacturer Levi Strauss and Company of San Francisco. The Bavarian-born Strauss used copper rivets at stress points to make his jeans longer-lasting.
Lingerie – since 1852, this is French and ultimately from Latin lineus ‘of linen’.
Loincloth – since 1851, a combination of two words beginning as Proto-Indo-European lendh ‘loin’ and Old Frisian klath ‘cloth’.
Mantilla – since 1717, a diminutive of the Spanish manta ‘blanket’.
Mantle – since 6th century, and originally meant simply ‘cloak’.
Mittens – since the latter part of the 14th century, this is from French mitaine meaning ‘half glove’.
Moccasins – since 1700, originally this simply means ‘plaited shoes’.
Muffler – since 1530, an agent noun from ‘muffle’ ultimately meaning simply ‘to wrap’.
Negligee – since 1756, it comes from Latin neglegere ‘to disregard, not trouble about’ and clearly a reference to the flimsy and well-nigh see-through garment.
Nylons – since 1940, it takes the name of the manmade fibre coined by putting together nyl and on meaning ‘no (cott)on’.
Panama – a hat, since 1833, named after a place with a name meaning ‘place of many fish’.
Pantaloons – since 1660, associated with San Pantaleone a Christian martyr and Venetian saint said to have worn tight trousers over his very skinny legs.
Panties – since 1845, a diminutive of ‘pants’.
Pants – since 1893, a diminutive of ‘pantaloons’.
Parka – since 1780, an Aleut word derived from Russia parka meaning ‘pelt’.
Petticoat – since the early 15th century, from the French petite and thus ‘small coat’.
Pinafore – since 1782, originally pinned to the front of the dress, this is why it is called ‘pinned to the front’.
Plus-fours – since 1924, named because they were four inches longer in the leg than similar trousers and thus had an overhang when tucked up.
Pyjamas – since 1800, comes from Hindi and means loose trousers tied at the waist’.
Raglan – since 1863, named for British General Lord Raglan (1788-1855) who commanded forces in the Crimean War and named from a Welsh place name meaning ‘place with a market’.
Robe – since late 13th century, from the same source as ‘bathrobe’.
Rompers – first seen in 1909, the agent noun of romp (which fitted nicely with the suffix seen in trousers) came from ‘romp’ a variant of ‘ramp’ ‘to climb, scale’.
Ruff – since 1520, it is a shortened form of ‘ruffle’, itself meaning ‘to disturb the smoothness of’.
Sabot – since the 13th century, this wooden shoe (which has famously given us ‘sabotage’) simply means ‘old shoe’.
Sandal – since the 14th century, our records only show ‘sandal’ as meaning ‘sandal’ and therefore impossible to trace.
Sari – since 1785, from a Pakrit word sadi meaning ‘garment’.
Scarf – since 1550, comes from Old French escherpe or ‘pilgrim’s purse suspended from the neck’ and ultimately from a number of Middle East words meaning ‘purse’.
Shift – 1590, meaning ‘to make efforts’ and perhaps better seen as ‘change, alteration’.
Shirt – since 1580, this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European sker ‘to cut’.
Shoe – since the 5th century, originates in Proto-Indo-European skeu ‘to cover’.
Singlet – since 1746, an unlined woollen garment and thus ‘of a single thickness’.
Skirt – since the early 14th century, this has exactly the same origin as ‘shirt’.
Slacks – since 1824, as in the sense ‘loose trousers’ first used by the military.
Slip – since 1550, from Middle Dutch slippe meaning ‘cut, slit’.
Slippers – since late 15th century, agent noun from ‘slip’ as in easily ‘slipped’ onto one’s foot.
Smock – since 8th century, A Germanic root simply meaning ‘a narrow hole or gap (for the head)’.
Sneakers – since 1895, as a rubber-soled shoe made the walker’s steps fall noiselessly.
Socks – early 14th century, Old English socc ‘light shoe’.
Soutane – since 1838, from French sotane ‘undershirt’ and ultimately Latin subtus ‘beneath, under’.
Spats – since 1779, a shortening of ‘spatterdash’ to prevent trousers or stockings being spattered with mud.
Sporran – since 1818, from Irish sparan meaning ‘purse’.
Stays – since 1600, plural of stay and a common origin with ‘stake’ it come from Proto-Indo-European stak ‘stand, place’.
Stole – since 9th century, shares an origin with Latin stola ‘robe, vestment’ and Proto-Indo-European stel ‘to put, stand’.
Suit – since 1300, matching garments and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European sekw ‘to follow’.
Sweater – since 1882, was originally worn to produce sweating and to lose weight.
Tabard – about 1300, originally from Latin tapete ‘figured cloth’
Tie – since 1550, obviously from the knot, this from Proto-Indo-European deuk ‘to lead’.
Tights – since 1827, they are indeed tight-fitting.
Toga – since 100, ultimately Proto-Indo-European tog-a ‘a covering’.
Trilby – since 1897, named after Trilby O’Ferrall, eponymous heroine in the novel Trilby by George du Maurier (1834-96).
Trousers – 1610, from Middle Irish triubhas ‘close-fitting shorts’.
Turban – since 1560s, from Turkish tulbent meaning ‘gauze, muslin’.
Tutu – since 1910, an infantile reduplication of cucu meaning ‘bottom, backside’.
Tuxedo – since 1889 and an American place name of Tuxedo Park, New York State, from an Algonquian p’tuck-sepo ‘the crooked river’.
Vest – since 1610, and originally from Proto-Indo-European wes ‘to clothe’.
Wellingtons – since 1817 and famously from Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the place name meaning ‘the farmstead in the temple clearing’.
Yashmak – since 13th century, this is the Turkish word for ‘veil’.