winter woollies

Winter woollies

posted in: English language | 0

Winter seems to be advancing at swift pace here in the Limousin. I woke up this morning to a crisp white frost on the lawn and an icy sheen on the car windscreen. We seem to light the wood-burning stove earlier and earlier every year. It’s time to break out the winter clothes, and this sparked a discussion in the household about the different terms for our winter woollies, and their origins. I usually refer to that second, warm outer layer as a jumper, whereas as the other half calls it a sweater. We wondered if it was a regional thing, rather like ‘scone’ pronounced ‘on’ or ‘scone’ pronounced ‘own’. I decided to do a little digging to find out.

Jumper – an agile sheep or a parachutist’s vest?

We speculated that ‘jumper’ may have something to do with wartime parachutists’ garb, but the word turns out to be much older. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a jumper as ‘a knitted garment typically with long sleeves, worn over the upper body’.  The word dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when it referred to a short coat. Its origin is probably from a dialect modification of the Scots word jupe for a man’s loose jacket or tunic, which came from Old French and Arabic. That’s interesting, as the French word for a skirt is la jupe. Another fact I’ve added to my store of pub quiz knowledge is that a jumper in American English is a pinafore dress.

Sweater or sweatshirt?

The Online Etymology dictionary defines a sweater as a North American word for ‘a woollen vest or jersey, originally worn for rowing’, a word dating to around the 1880s. There is indeed a connection to perspiration, as the word ‘sweaters’, which came into use around 1828, refers to clothing worn to produce sweat and thus reduce weight.

Jersey – the Channel Island connection

I was curious whether the word jersey had any connection to the largest of the Channel Islands. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a jersey is a ‘knitted garment with long sleeves, worn over the upper body’. The word dates to the late sixteenth century and refers to a woollen worsted fabric made on the island of Jersey. This reminded me that there is another Channel Island connection with the clothing item, a Guernsey, which dates to the late fifteenth century. This is a thick sweater made with oiled navy-blue wool worn by fishermen, similar to the Breton fisherman sweater or le chandail.

Pullovers and cardigans

Two more recent terms are the pullover and the cardigan. The word pullover comes, quite logically, from the fact that the garment is literally ‘pulled over’ the head to be put on. Its use started around 1870. I did wonder whether the term ‘cardigan’, which is essentially a jumper that has a buttoned or zipped front opening, had any connection to the Welsh town of Cardigan, deep in sheep country. However, the cardigan was so named after James Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan whose troops first wore similar garments in the Crimean War. Major General Brudenell led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (another place that gave its name to an item of clothing).

Modern terms

Two modern terms for jumpers, sweaters or pullovers – call them what you wish – are the fleece and the hoodie. A fleece usually refers to a top made of soft, wool-like, modern, synthetic materials, often with particular insulating qualities. The hoodie is an informal word for a hooded sweatshirt or sweater. In recent times the hoodie has become associated with the younger generation, but it is over eighty years old. The garment dates back to the 1930s when the US Knickerbocker Knitting Company claims to have made the first hooded sweatshirt.

I’d be interested to know if you can think of any more names for jumpers and sweaters – leave me a comment

winter woollies
Button up your winter woollies