Susie Dent: We're ditching our hufflebuffs, rolling up our sleeves and texting our friends for a cappuccino. How clothes maketh language
For all its Harry Potterishness, it comes to us from 19th-century Scots, where it meant old, scruffy and thoroughly worn-out clothes.
In more modern terms, these are surely the slouchy jumpers, elasticated leggings and baggy trackies we would once shuffle into on a Friday evening and be loath to take off on a Sunday evening, but which then became standard everyday wear during lockdown.
Now, with a renewed if precarious sense of freedom, it seems we are finally shuffling off the hufflebuffs and rediscovering our fashion mojo. Clothes retailers reported sales growth in May of more than 100 per cent, as we began to venture out once more. Language, meanwhile, never lost its love of clothing.
Beyond the hundreds of expressions that explicitly draw on clothes as a metaphor – from being buttoned up or rolling up your sleeves to putting on your thinking cap, English holds hundreds of invisible threads that bind our words together.
It takes, for example, a leap of the imagination to link the messages we dash off from our screens today with an expanse of sumptuous cloth. Yet “text” and “textile” are ancient siblings, descended from the Latin textere, “to weave”. We weave our words just as we weave our cloth, opting for plainness or embellishment as the situation demands. By the same metaphor, if we wish to direct those same words in a particular direction, we “spin” them, or “peg” them on to a particular message.
English hides in its shadows numerous stories of clothes as a marker of status and wealth – clothes maketh man, as Shakespeare knew.
Anyone making an “investment” was once quite literally “in a vest”, albeit of the ancient kind of a long-flowing robe or gown of office. To “divest” oneself was to strip off, removing the apparel of office, while to “dismantle”, in the 17th century, was to take off one’s mantle or cloak.
At the criminal end of the spectrum, to “escape” was to scramble out (ex) of one’s “cape” and make a swift exit (and if they had been riffling through the wardrobes of the wealthy, they were deemed “robbers”, ie stealers of “robes”).
Intrigue features, too. In the mid-18th century, the sensational diaries of Lady Wortley Montagu feature a group of young and wild aristocrats called the “Schemers”, who “meet regularly three times a week to consult on Galant Schemes for the advancement of that branch of Happyness which the vulgar call ‘Whoring’”. The rules demanded complete discretion. Each member, Lady Montagu’s Letters relate, “must arrive at the hour of six mask’d in a Domine”.
This was a disguise originally used for the hood or habit attached to the cape of a priest – it takes its name from dominus, “lord” or “master” – before coming to designate a small mask worn at masquerades.
Later, the black back of each of the tiles used in a popular board game must have brought to mind the style and colour of the disguises worn at these fancy masquerades, and so the game was given the name of “dominoes”.
The women attending the Schemers might have welcomed the protection of a chaperone. The very first meaning of that term, in the 1400s, was a hood or cap worn by noblemen. By the 1700s, “chaperon” had shifted senses quite dramatically, for now it denoted an elderly or married woman who accompanied a younger unmarried lady in public as her advisor and protector.
The link? Such a woman would shelter the youthful and unsuspecting debutante in the same way a hood protects the face.
The name Capuchin, an autonomous branch of a Franciscan Order within the Catholic Church, gives a silent nod to the cappucio or sharp-pointed hoods of its friars. The story is unexpectedly completed by “cappuccino”, because the colour of our favourite coffee style was thought to match that of those same hoods.
If shoes are your thing, English can deliver, too, but not always positively. Stiletto heels take their name from the Italian for a needle-pointed dagger, while the French sabot, “clog”, came into our language very differently.
When French workers took action against the introduction of new technology by destroying machines and tools in the 19th century, others chose the metaphor of their noisy traditional footwear and called their actions “sabotage”.
There are hundreds more such stories woven into the fabric of our everyday vocabulary. If today’s language seems a little less elaborate, it is because modern media demand that we are, above all, succinct. There, too, hides a tale of fashion: this time a Roman toga tied with a girdle or belt and which was consequently succinctus (sub, meaning under, and cintus, girdled).
Whether you stick with hufflebuffs or go for the domino effect, our fashion has long dictated far more than our wardrobes. Clothes maketh language far more than we realise.
Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in Dictionary Corner on Countdown since 1992. Her book, Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year, is out now
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