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shameless pleading

Jumper / Sweater

Hot enough for you?

Dear Word Detective: I recently had one of those interesting British vs. American language moments, when I realized that many Brits call sweaters “jumpers.” That made me giggle (particularly as the speaker, a grown man, referred to his “stripy jumper”), since I will always associate jumpers with rugrats, for better or worse. Then, however, I got to thinking about “sweater.” It’s actually kind of nasty, when you stand back and look at it. The garment is supposed to keep you warm and presumably comfortable. Any idea why we’ve chosen over time to name it for what happens when you use it when you shouldn’t (when the temperature doesn’t call for it)? — Chris Schultz.

That’s a darn good question. I actually have a theory as to why there are these odd disparities between normal (i.e., American) usage and the weird locutions the Brits come up with. They’re doing it on purpose. They actually started it just after World War II to make the UK seem more exotic and boost tourism. Then they discovered that they could actually get Americans to watch their more impenetrable BBC TV serials by peppering the dialog with nonsense like “wireless” for radio, “telly” for TV and, yes, “jumper” for “sweater.” Now they’ve got PBS viewers trained to jump like Pavlov’s dog at the drop of a “jam buttie” and folks like you are wondering what’s wrong with our natural American words. It’s diabolical, I tell you.

Just kidding, of course. But the business with sweaters being called “jumpers” threw me for a loop the first time I ran into it in conversation. I had known “jumper” only as a sort of sleeveless dress usually worn over a blouse, what the Oxford English Dictionary (produced in the UK, remember) calls a “pinafore dress.” (Perversely, the OED then defines “pinafore dress” as “A collarless, sleeveless dress … worn over a blouse or jumper.”) The term “jumper,” when it first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, was applied to the sort of shapeless jacket worn by artists and workmen, what we might call a “smock.” The extended “dress” sense of the word dates to the 1930s, and the all-in-one infant’s “jumper” garment followed. The use of “jumper” as a simple synonym for “sweater” is apparently a fairly recent further extension of the term, and hadn’t made it into the OED as of 1989. “Jumper” is actually derived from the noun “jump,” a modified form of the French “jupe,” used to mean a short coat in the 19th century (and completely unrelated to “jump” meaning “leap”).

The whole point of a “sweater,” when the term was first applied to an article of clothing in the late 19th century, was to make the wearer sweat. Athletes in training wore woolen sweaters when exercising in order to induce profuse sweating and thereby cause (it was thought) weight loss (“As for Pilling .., the little ruffian actually weighs over 8 stone; but we’re going to make him run a mile every day, with four sweaters, and three pairs of flannel trousers on,” 1890). This kind of “training” is, of course, known to be very dangerous today (and produces only dehydration, not weight loss). The use of “sweater” in its modern sense of “heavy knitted top worn for warmth” had appeared by the early years of the 20th century.

19 comments to Jumper / Sweater

  • Aussies use the term Jumper for wollen Winter garment. At least since 1970 or earlier. Then there is always; Thongs, Cordial etc

  • Bethany

    An interesting opinion however would just like to point out that ‘American language’ is English, from England and America was found by Britain therefore if there is a ‘normal first language’ it is British.

    • Lost In Translation?

      Bethany, you may have been too busy sniffling about the second paragraph to read the first sentence of the third paragraph, where the author mentions that he was ‘just kidding’ about what he had said in the second paragraph.

      Tough to see, as it was the first sentence of the very next thing you would have read after your hissy-fit had subsided.

  • Andy

    Hmmmm. Beth, I think you need to study some history after you finish your course in “paying attention 101″. Last time I checked, the British didn’t find anything. They did, however, found a colony or three in North America. A fairly substantial land mass “found” most likely by the Vikings, but certainly found by Columbus.

  • John

    Stay away from American history books and you may find the facts. The only sniffling and whining I can see comes from Andy and Lost in Translation??

  • Jamie

    This has to be the weirdest article I’ve ever read? You say that the Brits started changing THEIR words after world war 2 but the word ‘jumper’ came around in the mid 19th century? You also say ‘natural American words’ when the language you speak is English which was being spoken before your country was even founded? Is this just an example of American arrogance?

  • Susan Knitzilla

    Kids, kids, KIDS!! Play nice now….don’t make me stop this car, now. Face it, y’all. ..the Brits are still mad at us because they lost in 1776.

  • Here now! Yes we Americans speak English, isn’t that what our textbooks call it? But like all language there is a vast vocabulary there in made up of slang words. Simplified: We make up new words to be different ain’t that right? Y’all stop fussin and play nice now, Bless Your Little Hearts. (and before you get your feathers all ruffled I AM from the South and I DO speak with a Southern Drawl) I do love a British, Aussie, Scottish (Sigh) and Irish “accent” though.

    • Alex

      Barbra Barbra Barbra Now My nose is out of joint do you not love the New Zealand Accent too? ( Single tear sliding down cheek as I type this)

  • Terry Lingwood

    ‘normal ie American’? Yeah ok!!!

  • Dean

    I agree with Beth. You Americans speak the English language that came from.. well.. England. What they originated, is what goes. As America’s always think they are the only country to exist in this world, they think they can go change a language that they inherited.
    Typical America arrogance!

    • Victoria

      Dean, my dear,

      I’d like you to travel back in time to the year 1776. The language spoken in both the (UK? England? Great Britain? WHat is the politically correct term nowadays?)and the colonies was, in fact, English. However, likelihood of your understanding much of that spoken language is minimal, because terminology and common phrases have significantly changed since then – both IN the UK and in the US. And in point of fact, the evolution of the language has diverged much more on our side of the pond. Point of reference:

      • Nathan

        And let’s not forget that English is an amalgam of many other languages based on the incredible number of invasions both of and by the various people in the British Isles? It’s a Germanic grammar with tons of vocabulary with Latin roots from Spanish and French, and then mashed up and morphed by centuries of colonization on six continents with even more languages.

        The idea that the English we speak today was somehow born whole and delivered to the American colonies as a cohesive unit is not only a-historical, but nonsense.

  • Some people need to read the description that the Word Detective is “Words and language in a humorous vein”. If over-sensitive Poms read it that way, they might get less miffed and more amused.

    But what I’m really here for is the oddity of “jumper” not appearing in the OED until after 1989. I am Australian, born in 1955, and “jumper” was used here as long as I can remember. I wonder if it started here and, like “Neighbours”, later invaded the Motherland.

  • Adam French

    Thank you for the article. I’m halfway through a book “The last fighting Tommy” where Harry Patch describes wearing a “sweater”, which peaked my curiosity as I’ve never heard it referred to that way, outside of America. Harry Patch is a man who died in 2009 and was a British soldier who fought in WW1 (collectively all those men were referred to as Tommies)

  • Thomas millett

    Love this banter.
    But, please, Britain, is made up of England, Scotland and Wales;
    The Irish are not part of Britain. And each have their own
    Flavour of ‘English’ with their slang.
    I add to the debase on Jumper,
    Cheers guys,

  • Hannah

    In australia a pullover made from wool is often colloquially called a jumper. It is an old expression referring to sheep who jump. The wool of course comes from sheep. So ‘jumper’. Nothing complicated about it. Just a very old expression.

  • Steve

    Hey, I enjoyed the joke. I like the idea that we changed words after WWII to boost tourism. Capital idea! I’m just off to put on me woolly.

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