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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 2 - It's the Little Things That Count

Many of the accessories we wear when we get dressed are not just adornments: some have practical origins that no longer are part of our lives (e.g., when you buckle your belt, you are reenacting a safety behavior that began with the knights of old). Find out about the origins of items of apparel as well as words they have inspired.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1858 (approx.)
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Getting dressed for an everyday event or a spectacular affair requires more than throwing on a few clothes; one must carefully consider all the "little things" that accentuate the outfit. Necklaces, earrings, handkerchief in the pocket, scarves, etc., all add to the total effect. Our ancestors were no different from us today: what is added to the attire can and did influence the circumstances. Many of the adornments we use today were created for specific, pragmatic purposes. Here we will examine a few of those.

My grandmother would never think of preparing a meal without first donning her apron. From the Old French naperon (later shortened to napron), the original "apron" was a table cloth (we can see where we got the word "napkin" here). The "n" was not so much dropped as it was subsumed by the previous word (the article "a" – i.e., "a napron" was slurred into "an apron") (American Heritage, pp. 10-11). Apparently, the lady in charge of the culinary part of the household believed that her attire should be protected, just as the family dining table was kept covered.

And once she prepared a scrumptious meal, no doubt the cook would receive accolades from the diners. To earn an "accolade," one must often extend self to extreme measures. It is not surprising, then, to learn that it was the literal "sticking out of one's neck" to be awarded an accolade that gives us the root of this term. When being dubbed, a knight would be embraced at the same time; the French word for "embrace" is accolade (suspected, by linguists, to be from the Latin accollāre – from which we probably get the word "collar") (American Heritage, p. 2). So, while many like to wear their accolades in the open for the world to see, it is doubtful that many literally hang them around their necks like collars . . . then, again, those reward medals presented at graduations and sports events may be exactly that.

Continuing with the neckwear, Saint Audrey, whose Christian name was Etheldreda and once was Queen of Northumbria (now northern England), had a fondness for scarves and necklaces. She had devoted her life to helping others, after escaping an abusive husband and finding sanctuary in an abbey. She believed that her weakness for elaborate neckwear was the cause of her eventual suffering from throat cancer. Because of her devotion to the common people, she was canonized after her death and celebrated with an annual festival. To remember her at this event, the vendors sold laces and scarves, most of exquisite caliber, and dubbed them "St. Audrey's lace." With a little wear and tear on the term, it soon slurred into "tawdry lace" (this phenomenon of slurring from one word or phrase into a new one is called elision). But, unlike today, the phrase was used to describe the finest of neck adornment, and the word "tawdry" was synonymous with "refined" (Morris, pp. 197-198). In time, it was applied to any one of a number of things people might purchase at the annual celebration, many of which were shoddy or cheaply made (Garrison, p. 232). This has, of course, led to how we use the term today, but should you read in an ancestor's letter or diary that she purchased a "tawdry garment," do not think he or she was degrading herself by such an acquisition.

It seems a natural transition to move from tawdry to gaudy. Gaud, an obsolete term, was used at one time to mean "showy ornament," "toy," or "joke." Its origin was the French gaudir, meaning "to rejoice or jest" (from the Latin gaudere – also the genesis of our word "joy" today). The word "gaudy," then, is something that is "cheaply ornate." While some may say that the word originated with the architect Antoni Gaudí, his existence post-dates the term by a good many years (Morris, pp. 84-85).

Moving to some of the adornments we wear today that came from ancient battlefields, we discover that our accoutrements have some interesting history behind them. Once upon a time there were no rifles or cannons with which to fight the enemy in battle. Wars were won and lost by the sword, a particularly deadly weapon. In Greece, those headed into battle needed to do all they could to protect themselves from the blades of their opponents and so invented the brachion, a leather band worn about the wrist to deflect the blows of the adversary. The Romans were impressed by this means of wrist protection and soon were donning a similar band; the Franks took it from there and pronounced the leather band a bracel. Those who were of higher ranks would decorate their bracels so that the importance of the warrior could be easily detected. Over time, women found these decorated adornments to appear fashionable and soon wore their own, smaller, versions, dubbed bracelets ("little bracel"). While primarily a woman's accessory, we occasionally see men wearing bracelets; but their original use has been all but lost to obscurity, with their reminder being only the moniker (Garrison, pp. 107-108).

Today we consider a "buckle" to be the part of the belt that keeps it in place. If the buckle is broken, we think nothing of discarding the entire accessory and going to purchase a replacement. But there was a time when a buckle was an essential part of getting dressed – when it held the soldier's headgear in place. When heading off to war in about 500 B.C., the Romans, who knew that the loss of one's helmet likely could result in the loss of one's head, decided to create a leather piece that would hold the helmet, and its accompanying cheek and nose protection, in place through the most vigorous of battles; this strap was fastened with a clamp and was positioned by the cheek (the buccula). It was so effective that soon other pieces of clothing were soon being held in place by buckles of various types (Garrison, p. 130). So today, when we buckle the seat belt of our cars, we are carrying on an ancient tradition for the safety of all our cheeks (and other body parts).

With the knights being buckled into their armor, getting ready to go to battle, or a jousting match, the task was an important one. It was the act of "buckling" that allowed the warrior to do his work; hence the term, as we know it, "buckle down to work" (Mordock & Korach, p. 31). Today, when we face the task at hand, there is little, if any, buckling involved, but the phrase has hung on, long after the invention of Velcro®.

Following the discussion of buckling into one's armor, we can segue smoothly into a discussion of "girding one's loins." It gives one a sense of physical preparation for battle or other confrontation – the individual tucks in his skirt (the end of his garment) so it is secured in his girdle (belt), and thus is set for action. But the phrase has, both as its genesis and its present use, a more metaphysical element: to prepare oneself mentally for the challenge ahead. It is Biblical in origin where, in Proverbs, it refers to a female readying herself with (inner) strength by girding her loins (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, pp.61-62). Today's conflicts, though, seem to have less "girding of loins": many handle them with a few nasty comments on Facebook; but in "days of old" it was entirely different.

The way our ancient ancestors challenged another person was to "throw down the gauntlet." While those knights of old (the most likely people to even have a gauntlet) often kept their words of controversy contained in verbal assaults, when the topic was serious enough, the intent to do bodily harm was expressed by removing one of the "metal-plated leather" gloves (gauntlets) and throwing it to the ground. Of course, long since the practice of wearing such attire had become archaic, the use of the phrase "throw down the gauntlet" continued, and still does to this day (Garrison, p. 135). The word "gauntlet" (alternate spelling: "gantlet") comes from the Old French gantelet ("little glove"; gant meaning "glove") and, while used in the references to a punishment – "running the gauntlet" – that phrase has a different origin. The latter comes from gantlope (Swedish words gata – "lane" – and lopp – "course") (American Heritage, pp. 108-109). The spelling change came either because of, or in inspiration of, the practice of the person being punished and running the gantlet – originally beaten with switches in the hands of his comrades, who stood in two lines between which the offender would run. In the military, after gloves became part of the uniform, the thrashing was done by the gloved hands of those wielding the punishment (hopefully those gloves were not the metal kind, discussed above) (Mordock & Korach, p. 36).

While the aggressor in a duel throws down his glove to indicate his intent, a young lady, rejecting a suitor, might just "give him the glove (or mitten)." He may ask for her "hand" [in marriage] and be rewarded with just its covering. An apparent American term, it is first recorded in 1847, though probably was acted out in reality much earlier, and, it is suspected, in other geographic locations as well (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 102). It makes sense that the removal of the glove or mitten is a visual depiction of a parting of the ways since things don't get much closer than a hand inside a glove. This next metaphor, then, became logical to describe the intimate relationship of two people, or a person and some thing ("he and his dog fit together like hand in glove"). In the 1600s, when the phrase originated, it was "hand and glove," which metamorphosed into "hand ‘n' glove," which may then have made its final leap to "hand in glove" (in the 1800s), creating the impression of the tightest form of intimacy (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 113).

So now, as you look at photographs of your great-grandparents, attired properly with scarves and gloves and bracelets and other accessories, remember that their clothing choices date back many centuries and continue to be part of our own dressing traditions today. So gird up your loins, buckle down to researching those forebears; it shouldn't be like running the gantlet to learn about the lives of our ancestors, no matter what they wore!


American Heritage Dictionaries. Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Myron Korach. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Morris, Evan. The Word Detective: Solving the Mysteries behind Those Pesky Words and Phrases. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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