click to view original photo

Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 5 – Headstrong

Does "foolscap" - the paper - have anything in common with "feather in your cap"? Does a "chaperon" have a "widow's peak"? How are these words related to headgear? This month's Lost Lexicons article will delve into the realm of names of head coverings and how they have evolved over the ages.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 2398 (approx.)
Short URL:

Our discussion of last month focused on the piece of headgear we call the "hat." But there are so many other words that either mean the same thing or are used for the same or similar purposes. So here we will examine the origin of words used to describe various types of head coverings or phrases involving those garments.

Once upon a time, people did not wear hats as much as they did hoods. Hoods were certainly easier to maintain and less likely to get lost, since they were connected to the rest of the person's garment. But hoods also created some vision issues, since they often covered up the sides of the face so that peripheral vision was hampered. They also made the wearer quite vulnerable in the circumstance where he/she was "hoodwinked." Today when we wink at a person, it means that we close and open one eye (the reasons for doing this depend on the context, of course). But, in its original form, "wink" meant "to have one's eyes closed." During the 1500s, it was the fashion to wear a cloak with a hood or a cowl attached that, on occasion, would slip too far forward and momentarily blind the wearer. This hoodwinking experience became an advantage for crooks who might wish to rob an unsuspecting, fashion-conscious person: coming up behind his victim, the robber would shove the hood down over the person's face (causing him to be "winked") and then get away with the individual's purse before he/she could see who the criminal was (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 96; Feldman, p. 121). Note: as tempting as it might be to connect this word to "hoodlum," the origin of that term most likely has nothing to do with an actual "hood" (p.15) and may receive closer scrutiny at a later date.

Did any of your ancestors have a "widow's peak"? This is when the hair comes to a point at the center of the forehead (either by choice or by chance). But it did not always refer to hair: its origin is the hooded garment worn by women who had been widowed. In the Middle Ages this type of headpiece, which came to a unique point at the back, was mandated to be worn by widows so that their circumstances would be clear at a glance (Garrison, p. 135). Why was such clarification desired? I will let someone more versed in history research that one.

But other words that seem to have nothing to do with the head also have their origins in head apparel. Take, for example, "chaperone." Yes, the word we use to describe the person who accompanies a young couple on a date came from a term once used for a piece of head covering (does anyone employ either chaperone any more?). Did our ancestors know that the woman in the hood who was keeping a close watch on their every move was identified as their chaperone because of that hood? Here's how it happened: once upon a time, in the Middle Ages, the French priests wore a hood called a chaperon (translation: "little mantle"). As fashion and people moved throughout the world, so did the behavior of wearing the chaperon, initially reserved for men in special religious Orders. When did women begin to robe themselves in this unusual garment? Probably in the 1400s to 1600s, after which it was relegated to the back of the closet; only those who were unconcerned about social mores and fashion sense continued to be seen in public in the full cloak and chaperon. It was those unique individuals (usually older women) who were safe and knowledgeable folks, fit for the duty of keeping track of the comings and goings of young ladies (Garrison, p. 131). And so it is that the responsible adult, chaperoning the dance, is given the title of "a hood" (which has other connotations, alluded to earlier, that would not align well with the task of "chaperone").

When hoods gave way to hats in the headgear department, hat makers created oaken blocks onto which the hats were shaped. These surrogate heads were labeled "blockheads" and soon became synonymous with one whose head was filled with as much brains as the wig and hat form made of wood. The phrase dates back to Henry VIII (Hendrickson, p. 80).

Let us take a quick look at another head-covering: the kerchief. We know what a "chef" is, and also what a "chief" (the former being the head of the kitchen, the latter, head of the Tribe). The word "kerchief" comes from that root – chef/chief – though is based on the misspelling of chef, which means, in Old French, "head." The word ker is an abbreviated form of the Old French covrir, meaning "to cover." So a "kerchief" is simply something used to cover the head. From this we get "neckerchief" (a neck-head-covering) and "handkerchief" (a head covering held in the hand), as well as the more specific "pocket handkerchief" (a head covering, held in the hand, kept in the pocket), most of which would cover only a very, very small head (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 110-111).

Then there are more specialized head coverings such as the "derby." This piece of headgear and the horse race of the same name have the same genesis: Derby, England. The Twelfth Earl of Derby loved fast horses and created a race of three-year-olds (horses, that is, not people). Begun in 1780, this became an annual event and was soon the most popular horse race in England. Fast forward about eighty years and we find that Americans visiting England also enjoyed the activity and were particularly impressed by the hats of the racing aficionados, bringing both the Derby race and the Derby hat back to the United States to be enjoyed by those on this side of the pond (Garrison, p. 27).

Let us cross the pond again to examine the term "Tam-o'-shanter." Tom of Shanter (AKA "Tam o' Shanter") made his wild ride, according to Bobby Burns, through a storm so intense as to cause him to hold "fast his gude blue bonnet." Tam, uh, Tom, had a "bonnet" that resembled a beret, but was wider and looser; the fashion of the time among the Lowlanders of Scotland. Once that poem was published, the name of that floppy hat was created: a tam-‘o'-shanter (or "tam," as it is often called). Poor Tom, he has been reduced to headgear (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 115).

We can also look to our British ancestors for the origin of another specialized form of head covering: the mortarboard. Most of us would not be seen dead in our mortarboards, once the initial use of the unusual headgear, worn during a graduation ceremony, is completed. Named for the square piece of wood used to hold mortar in masonry (the occupation, not the Brotherhood, though that fraternal organization was derived from the field of the same name), it is not expected that graduates carry any cement mixture! The naming feature here is simply due to the similarity of shape. How, then, did such a shape develop? Originally, in the 16th Century, the mortarboard (which did not acquire that actual moniker until the 19th Century) was a skull cap with a small (un-stiffened) top piece, held in place by small knob. It was worn by the highest officers of the church. Over time, the appendage attached to the skull cap was made larger (some say as a protection from poor weather or leaky roofs) and necessitated some stiffening in order to keep it from looking more like a tam-‘o'-shanter. By the 18th Century, the high officers of universities also donned the headgear. In the next Century, the change from knob to tassel completed its basic structural evolution (during all of this, the cap was coordinated with the gown: both were black). Finally, in an effort to differentiate one rank above another, additional alterations were made to details, including color, to eventually get us to where we are today: schools use caps and gowns of all hues to represent their institutional color scheme (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 119). An interesting addition to this is that the headgear worn by some French judges is also called a "mortar," from the French mortier (meaning the vessel in which cooks and pharmacists mix their concoctions – i.e., "mortar and pestle") (p. 120). Perhaps this is because the French judges mix up a potion of justice. Just a thought.

If we, today, wore headgear the way our ancestors once did, we would have very few secrets. The head coverings worn in the Middle Ages were designed often to differentiate those of various occupations, social classes, and conditions. Scholars were expected to wear a scull cap with an attached square, similar to those of the clergy, as just discussed. While most of the community were illiterate, those whose occupation and station identified them accordingly also meant that they were afforded a certain level of respect. Some believed the thusly attired scholars to be aided in their thinking processes by their unique headgear, and if one of the lower class could just possess such a "thinking cap," he, too, would be endowed with amazing powers of discernment and literacy. We still talk about putting on our thinking caps when some serious study is demanded (Garrison, p. 176); though I think many, at least in younger generations, are more likely to don earphones.

"She has her cap set for you," the young man warns his friend. It sounds so innocuous; almost sweet. But that's hardly the phrase's origin. The Latin word for "head" is caput (e.g., "the plan has gone caput" – it has been decapitated or killed in a most final manner); similarly the word cap was the term used for the direction of the head of a French ship. To reach a particular destination, the ship was steered (its "cap was set") in that direction (frequently in reference to war time activities). The navigational specificity has been lost, but it still means that there is an aim towards a goal (Garrison, p. 222).

But the phrase "feather in his cap" does refer to an actual head garment. No, it is not a reference to the Native American population, often depicted in elaborate headdresses of feathers and leather. This term also comes from our British neighbors and originated in the 1400s, or even earlier. Those who held positions of distinction were identified by the feathers in their head pieces; ostrich feathers were of particular preference. But also, in a battlefield engagement, when a combatant wore a feather in his helmet, it was a declaration that he was something to reckon with (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 173). The tradition was known in a number of cultures: the Lycians (in Asia Minor), Hungarians, and Chinese all included feathers in headgear as a visible sign of bravery and distinction. Legend has it that the first lady to wear such an adornment did so because her beloved, a warrior, presented her with one from his own headpiece (Mordock & Korach, pp. 32-33). Today we don't so much as pluck a feather from some unsuspecting bird to adorn the baseball cap of our grandson, who just won the Pinewood Derby, but we still are likely to utter that the win was "a feather in his cap."

A cap of a completely different type is "foolscap," a type of paper and not one with which most of us are familiar today. It was the moniker for a form that, no doubt, some of your ancestors probably used, bearing a watermark of a jester's belled cap. An unusual marking, for sure, it was allegedly changed to that from the original mark of the royal crown in about 1653 when Cromwell objected to the use of the crown in such a common manner (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 221). Another theory is that the original watermark was the royal coat of arms and, during the English Civil War, Cromwell and Parliament ordered the alteration due to his personal objection to things related to royalty. Either way, the problem with this explanation for the origin of the eight-by-thirteen-inch paper is that the first reference to it isn't found in anything before 1700 (Quinion, pp. 116-117), in spite of rumors that foolscap dated to the 1500s has been found (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 221). Another theory suggests it is Italian in origin (that has been fairly well discounted) and yet another suggests it came from Germany. Whatever the origin, the term and the paper are fading into obscurity with modern forms replacing both (Quinion, p. 117), and, with computers and digital storage all but replacing paper, perhaps that type of cap will be relegated to depictions of jesters.

So, now that you have set your cap to learning your ancestor's terminology, when you are working on your genealogy and you come upon some of those strange words such as "foolscap," you won't have to put on your thinking cap to figure out what they mean. No one will be able to call you a blockhead! And no one will be able to hoodwink you into believing they mean anything other than what your ancestors meant. It will be a feather in your cap when you understand what your ancestor was wearing when a letter talks of his "tam" or his "derby" or the "widow's peak" on a woman's cloak. And if your ancestor wore a kerchief when she went out, you will know that it was for covering her head, not blowing her nose. You have no need of a chaperone to guide you through the headgear phrases of past generations.


Feldman, David. Who Put the Butter in Butterfly? . . . and Other Fearless Investigations into our Illogical Language. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

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.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

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

Quinion, Michael. Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2006.

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.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles