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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 9 - I'll Sleeve it to You

Shirts and blouses have not only covered our bodies for centuries, they have spawned some interesting sayings that have metamorphosed over time to mean any number of things. From "keep your shirt on" to "give the shirt off your back," our language is peppered with clothing terminology. Learn some of it in this article


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Word Count: 1923 (approx.)
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My mother called the garment my brother wore with his pants (see earlier article) a "shirt"; but the same type of garment (actually, since I was younger and subject to my brother's hand-me-downs, sometimes it was one of his shirts that no longer fit him) was called a "blouse." I grew up thinking that the distinction between the two pieces of clothing was gender-specific. Perhaps, to my mother, it was; but to our ancestors, the difference between these two coverings for the upper part of the body was more semantic and role-related.

It is true that by 1870, the word "blouse" was considered more a word for a woman's garment - "a loose shirtwaist" - but prior to that, and as early as the 1780s, the word (from the French, with the same spelling) referred to "a workman's short tunic or smock" (Barnhart, p. 101). pulls definitions from various sources, most relating the garment to women, almost all emphasizing "loose-fitting," and some identifying its nature as requiring a belt at the waist (those also consider the item to be worn by men, specifically of the working class and most commonly in France). We tend to focus on the appearance when we think of a "blouse" and expect it to do just that: "blouse." As a verb, the word refers to the loosening of the fabric so that it might appear to be puffed up or out (as one might do to pants that are tucked into boots, causing there to be a "blousing" effect at the top of the boots). In referring to the garment, the sleeves and/or the fitting at the waist might be "bloused" (Oxford University Press), though in modern parlance, that no longer seems to be a requirement.

The "shirt," on the other hand, is an example what happens when one word makes a split, much like an amoeba, as the object to which it refers also split. The Germanic term skurtaz (later skyrte in Old English and skyrta in Old Icelandic) gave birth to two of our most common pieces of clothing. The skyrta was a long tunic that extended to the wearer's knees (eventually being adjusted to refer to just that portion from the waist down, becoming our "skirt" of today). The skyrte was a shorter garment, though, and, like its Norse cousin, covered the chest; it eventually gave way to becoming "shirt". Both of these were intended as undergarments to add warmth to the cold winters; eventually that, too, changed in function as well as fashion (American Heritage, p. 260). Most likely, some wore blouses over their shirts. But, given time (and in warmer climates), we ended up with two terms for essentially the same piece of apparel.

Now that we know where we got the terms, let's examine what can happen to these pieces of clothing (or at least the words used to describe them) when we are faced with various circumstances.

Did your ancestor "lose his shirt" in some scheme or circumstance out of his control? We hope that there was no actual loss of clothing (in the early days of civilization, most people had rather sparse supplies of that). But the phrase is fairly new (comparatively speaking); consider the shirt as being the closest thing to one's own skin. While not expected to be translated literally, a figurative loss of shirt would be like losing one's last, and closest, possession; akin to almost losing life itself. And the one who "gives the shirt off his back" is giving essentially the last and closest item he owns (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 106).

We would think that the opposite of the phrase "lose one's shirt" would be "keep your shirt on." Not exactly. Today, when we think of a shirt, the garment is often made with precision, and, if store-bought, is purchased because of its comfortable fit (as well as stylish design). But this was not the case with our ancestors. Their shirts were usually homemade and not with the best precision in the world (no offense, great-great-grandma); a man's movement may have been restricted by the stiffness of the garment or by its tight fit. If a situation occurred that might require some fisticuffs (the second syllable of that word having nothing to do with that part of a shirt, by the way [Morris]), the prepared combatant would be quick to remove the garment that was hampering his activity. His opponent, on the other hand, seeing this rash action, and desiring to keep his nose from being bloodied, would admonish "keep your shirt on" ("don't jump to conclusions" or "don't be so quick to fight") and then offer to discuss the matter like gentlemen. The phrase dates back to at least the 1850s and seems to be American in origin (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 175).

Shirts were pieced together with the various components being either sewn or buttoned on (the latter method allowed certain parts of the garment to be washed separately as well as replaced as needed; when the main garment was still in good shape yet one part, the collar, for instance, was well worn). Let us consider some phrases that refer to parts of the garment instead of the item as a whole.

As opposed to "blue-collar worker," in America, the phrase "white-collar worker" originated with the British at the time of WWI. The opposite of "white-collar" across the pond was "black-collar" (in reference to the clerical workers). We use the former to refer to those whose work is more desk-related than hands-on (office vs. shop worker) (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 29). Of course, today many in the workforce of manual labor wear "work shirts" that are blue in color, reinforcing the concept that "blue-collar" means one who works as and is clothed in the garb of mechanic, plumber, electrician, etc. It often has been used as a demeaning term, as though the people in those professions were less schooled and, therefore, in a lower income bracket ( Well, I don't know about the early 1900s, but the mechanic who repairs my car is brilliant (he would have to be, the thing has 47 different computers on board) and, judging from my repair bills, hardly "just scraping by."

So much for collars, let's move to the sleeves. When someone declares that his or her actions are true and he/she has "nothing up the sleeve," that person is alluding to the magician, whose practices cannot be so guaranteed. However, in spite of this apparently obvious use of the term, it really dates to the time when men's garments were manufactured sans pockets. Pockets are really a modern addition to clothing, and while many people carried purses or small bags on strings around the waist, others used their sleeves (which were prominently bloused) to carry the most personal, necessary items. Sleeves in that time period (we're talking pre-Henry VIII) were often removable and sometimes were huge, even to the point of dragging on the ground. Their capacity was limited only by one's imagination and probably most of those folks really did have things tucked up their sleeves (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 47).

It is often easy to tell the object of a person's affections if that person "wears his heart on his sleeve." Such open devotion, as the phrase suggests, leaves the smitten one somewhat vulnerable. The term, coined by Shakespeare, has been retained through the centuries and we still hear today that a person who displays his (or her) emotions is thusly encumbered by such an addition to the wardrobe (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 29). But the origin may well have been more literal than even Shakespeare admitted. When a knight went into battle, it is said that around his arm (on his sleeve) he tied the kerchief or scarf of the woman who had won his heart, openly displaying his affection for her. The truth of that, of course, is something we may never know, but there is more evidence to the actuality that, in England, in the 1500s, a man who had affections for a woman would wear a Valentine (the heart-shaped token she gave him) on his sleeve, demonstrating reciprocity of feelings (Feldman, p. 128).

From sleeves, we continue downward to the cuffs (also often removable when our ancestors desired to clean or replace them). At least two cuff phrases have been spawned by this part of the garment: "off the cuff" and "on the cuff." It appears that they are opposites. Let's check. The suggestion is that the phrase "on the cuff" originated with bartenders who, without having a paper handy to keep tabs on the drink consumption of his patrons, would use the cuff of his shirt to maintain a record (no wonder they would have to be removed to be washed). The definition of the term cuff is "arranged" or "scheduled" (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 44) (which, perhaps, the recorded data on the shirt sleeve is - and arrangement to get payment before the patron departs). "Off the cuff," then, would be those drinks consumed but not charged for or recorded for future payment to be scheduled. I remember a television talk/interview show called Off the Cuff, implying that whatever was said there was "off the record." Of course, the very nature of it being televised made that expectation ludicrous.

Finally, we are brought to the person who sells the goods. For years, the term "haberdasher" was confined to the hat dealer, but now it refers to any purveyor of clothing. Some believe it comes from the German phrase Hab' Ihr das? (meaning: "Have you that?" a common question of a customer to the merchant). The term dates back nearly 700 years; others believe its origin is the Old French word hapertas (meaning: "A dealer of furs," which makes more sense when we think of the haberdasher who sells all forms of clothing). Whatever the origin, our ancestors were probably far more familiar with the term than the young folks of today (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 151).

Perhaps when you read letters or journal accounts of your ancestors, you will learn that someone wore his/her heart on the sleeve, making that information "on the cuff" instead of off. Maybe you will learn that your ancestor was a white-collar worker who was a merchant in a haberdashery and would give anyone the shirt off his back. Perhaps you will find that your ancestor was prone to argument, having a hard time keeping his shirt on, or a gambler who always had something up his sleeve and ended up losing his shirt. Whatever the case, you now know the origins of the terminology relating to the shirts and blouses of our forebears.


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

Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003. "Blue Collar." Accessed 5 February 2011, from "Blouse." Accessed 5 February 2011, from

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

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

Morris, Evan. "Try the Punch," 4 February 2003. The Word Detective. Accessed 5 February 2011, from

Oxford University Press. "Blouse." Word of the Month: The Making of Australian English. Accessed 5 February 2011, from

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

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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