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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 7 -

Inspired by the cold weather, either already here or imminent, this article examines some of the gear we use to keep warm while dealing with the elements. Why do we call something "buttonholed"? Does a pea-coat have anything to do with vegetables? These and other phrases will be explained here.


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It seems appropriate at this time of year to be thinking about coats and jackets and the outer clothing we use to protect us from the elements. While I live in Southern California and do not bring out the parka and scarf very often, I grew up in Illinois where they have been utilizing such apparel for a few weeks already. In this part of our clothing examination, we will consider some of the phrases that relate to the outer wear.

When I met my husband, he had a very small wardrobe (he was living in an RV), but one item he had and cherished was his "pea jacket." It was his warmest coat (as we do now, we also did then call Southern California home, so using up valuable closet space for this garment – a double-breasted short coat of wool – was quite a sacrifice). The origin of the term is pij-jakker or pijekker (Dutch for "coarse cloth"), which later became "pee jacket" in America (15th Century). The word "pee," no longer used in this context, originally referred to "a coat of course cloth." That spelling and usage were relegated to the archives and the coat's qualifier got a new spelling, apparently connecting it to a vegetable, for some unknown reason (it has no connection with legumes of any type, nor is it usually of a green color). But in form and function, it remains almost unchanged from its earliest reference to today. (Note: the "p" is not an abbreviation for "pilot" – as in, "pilot's jacket" – as some might believe.) (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 117-118; Morris, pp. 146-147; Feldman, p. 124).

Another type of coat, frequently referenced by our ancestors, but probably not discussed these days, is a sack coat. This is a coat that hangs from the shoulders in such a manner as to resemble a sack. Often misinterpreted as being made from sackcloth (a "coarsely woven cloth" used for the manufacturing of sacks), the sack coat is usually made of a slightly higher grade of fabric (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 170).

From types of coats, how about a quick look at a couple of phrases that use "coat." The first of these is "cut the coat according to the cloth." We don't hear the phrase as much as our ancestors probably did, but if your forebears were as poor as some of mine were, it is likely this phrase was uttered by a few of them. When one is wealthy, he/she can afford to be extravagant with the raw materials at hand, making sure a coat's fabric (sleeve to bodice) matched perfectly, taking care to be certain the warp and woof were properly aligned. But those who found only enough money (and, hence, material) to barely cover the body made use of every nuance of material – each scrap pieced in as it fit, not as it met with the sharp eyes of the fashion police. The phrase dates back to at least the mid-1500s (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 82).

The second "coat related" phrase is "turncoat." We use the term today to describe the person whose allegiance shifts according to the circumstances (often as they affect him/her personally). In medieval times, this term was far more literal. The color of a man's clothing identified his allegiance (usually this was in reference to the servants and others who served a particular nobleman) and so the connection of person to kingdom was easily discerned by the hue of the garments (not unlike gang colors in today's cities). For those who did not want to appear partial or who wished to align himself with either side, as circumstances warranted, having a coat that displayed one color on one side and another when turned inside out made life more bearable, especially when having dealings with both sides of opposing factions (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 174-175). There is a specific legend of the duke of Saxony whose property was between the warring French (in white) and Spanish (in blue). The reversible coat that he possessed allowed him to live more or less in peace (Morris, p.211) by turning the coat to show the color of whichever side was winning at the moment. Apparently this behavior was looked on with some scorn by those participating in the battles (Mordock & Korach, p. 34).

Of course, the fasteners used to hold the coats in place were almost as important as the garments themselves. My own ancestors made a good living making the buttons that were used on everything from outerwear to intimate apparel, not to mention shoes. Many phrases using the word "button" ("button your lip," "cute as a button," etc.) need no etymologist to decipher, but one interesting one comes to mind that is not as clear: "to buttonhole" something. This phrase is used to mean to put the thing into place, but in 1860, the term referred to "the act of forcing attention upon a reluctant listener." How do we get from the hole in which we slip a button when we are getting dressed to a communication activity? It has had an interesting metamorphosis. In the early 1800s, men had the option of buttoning their coats up to just under the chin. They seldom took this type of extreme "buttoning up," unless the weather so warranted it (and, if men back then were anything like they are now, I strongly suspect they didn't do it even in the most inclement of weathers). Instead, the top, now the collar, of the coat, with its attached buttons, would be folded down at the neck, providing anyone who wanted to keep the thusly attired man from leaving the conversation an object to literally "hold" on to. Such a vulnerable button, then, became a potential "bottonhold" for the "captured" well-dressed gentleman. "Hold," sounding like "hole," was soon replaced in "modern" vernacular about the time of the Civil War, and so it remains to this day (Garrison, p. 177). So when you are "buttonholing" something, remember that you are simply keeping it where you want it to remain.

But what about those who don't have sufficient clothing for the harsh weather, finding themselves, instead, dressed in "rags"? And does that word have any connection to the verb form, slang, "to rag on someone"? When my husband "rags on me" for spending too much time doing family history and not enough time attending to living family, he is carrying on a tradition of behavior dating back to early England. Indeed, the verb form did have its origin in the clothing that was worn by the lower class, and so called because of their unwelcome status among the upper classes. When driven from the streets of the city, a beggar might be chased away by the elitists who set their dogs on the fleeing vagrant; dogs that would bite and tear at street urchin's clothing, reducing the garments to rags. The privileged citizens would cheer their dogs on, a practice that was called "ragging," hence the use of the term today, though we usually don't apply it to those extremes (Garrison, p. 42).

As we approach the coldest months (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), we do many of the same things our ancestors did: seek shelter, don the warmest clothing we can find, fasten it tightly, and thank our good fortune that we are not dressed in rags. Our coats today may be made of nylon or other synthetic fabric, unlike the skin and fur trappings of our forebears, and our buttons are usually made of plastic instead of bone or metal, but we have the same needs: to survive the cold and keep comfortable (some of our ancestors were doing it for sheer survival). As you connect to the generations that went before, remember that the clothing we take for granted often meant the difference between life and death for them. How grateful we should be that our direct ancestors survived to propagate our families.


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.

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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