Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



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.

42 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.

    • Nathan

      The primary “American language” but we have no single language here, and no single country founded us. The Dutch first settled New York, the Spanish first settled Florida and what is now California, and the French settled Louisiana and much of the Mississippi. French is still a primary language in much of LA, and Spanish is spoken all over the United States both from newcomers and in areas that were settled in the 1700 and 1800s.

      In my town our election ballots are printed in English, Spanish, a Chinese dialect and an Indian dialect. There is no official language of the United States.

  • 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?

    • TP

      On the contrary, the Brits are famous for changing words. They invented the Association Football ruleset (no hands) and its correct short name in English, Soccer. They only took up the French word for the sport en mass in the 1980s. The second paragraph rang quite true to me. London is one of the fastest-changing places in the world for language. I heard the American Appalachian region (where people still say yonder) is the oldest English.

  • 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)

  • David

    Oh well… So many English words are derived from French (beef and Boaef), others from Latin, some from northern Europe, and languages do continue to evolve. And yes I was brought up to use jumper well before 1989. I was told in the 60s that the Welsh for “telly” was tellywelly which had myself and my Welsh cousins in fits (of laughter, not hissy) but I think our legs were being pulled.

  • James

    In reply to the very first post written as “Hot enough for you”? It’s the Americans that always have to be different to all the other English speaking countries. The word jumper is used in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, Wales etc. Along with other words such as torch, wardrobe,jam, boot, (luggage compartment).

    The other pet hate of mine too that Americans do that no other country does is putting the date back to front !

  • Lee

    Folks, language evolves. There is American English, UK English, Canadian English, etc. Language changes. Dialects develop. We can’T even claim a homogenous “American” English. No one is right or wrong. Get over it.

  • 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, Ganda.
    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.

  • Martyn Brawn


    Differentiating between a ‘British’ accent and a ‘Scottish’ accent is meaningless! Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom is made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. ‘England’ or ‘English’ is not a synonym for Britain or British. I am English and I am also British and my passport says I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. The propensity of Yanks to say ‘England’ when they mean Britain or the UK is very, very annoying…and I’m English. Think how annoying it is to a Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish person.

    Victoria,there is no ‘politically correct’ term for the UK, there is only a right term or a wrong term according to the context. If you mean Britain, say Britain. The country as a whole is technically the UK, but Britain tends to be acceptable to people in Northern Ireland, at least those from the loyalist tradition. A Scottish person is clearly not English, but he or she is just as British as is an English person. The government, the army, the navy, the Royal Air Force, the royal family all represent the United Kingdom. In sport we have separate national football teams for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In rugby the same, except Northern Ireland is combined with the Republic of Ireland as simply ‘Ireland’. At the Olympics, by contrast, we have a Great Britain and Northern Ireland team. It’s simple.

    There is no such thing as a British accent. There are an immense number of regional accents in England and Scotland. Northern and Southern Welsh people speak English with different accents, or they speak Welsh. A Northern Irish accent is audibly different from that of a person haling from the Republic of Ireland; and I dare say the ROI has regional variations too.

    And as for the English Language, it is what it is called. It is English. The bastardised version you speak in the United States is American English. We have to accept the term ‘British English’ on computer software because the US culture is so dominant globally. The fact remains, however, that English is the language of the English people…of England. You may have created a country out of a violent act of rebellion against your lawful monarch, but you can’t steal our language as well; though you are welcome to use it. So however bizarre you may find our spelling and grammar, the fact remains that it’s our language and we say what’s correct usage. You can do as you will with American English but just try and be a bit more humble when talking to or about Britons and you won’t ruffle so many feathers and put so many noses out of joint.

  • Noel Garner

    How did “toilet” get changed to “restroom” in the “American” language? As far as I know “resting” is not what you do there. Maybe you do in the States? It’s a mystery.

  • 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.

  • Mike

    If everyone is done pissing and moaning over Americas evil culture appropriation, lets get down to the brass tacks.
    First the English language did not originate in England. They apparently did a little appropriation of their own and claim English as their own.
    Here in America, Some areas of Canada, the non indigenous people of Australia and other countries all speak English, but each country has its own flavor of English.
    I personally say that we in the US speak American, because out particular dialect is different from England’s, and the same follows for Canada, Australia etc.

    Getting back to English isn’t England’s.

    Do some research, and everyone get off your snotty high horses.

    English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the mid 5th to 7th centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon settlers from what is now northwest Germany, west Denmark and the Netherlands, displacing the Celtic languages that previously predominated.

    The Old English of the Anglo-Saxon era developed into Middle English, which was spoken from the Norman Conquest era to the late 15th century. A significant influence on the shaping of Middle English came from contact with the North Germanic languages spoken by the Scandinavians who conquered and colonized parts of Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries; this contact led to much lexical borrowing and grammatical simplification. Another important influence came from the conquering Normans, who spoke a Romance langue d’oïl called Old Norman, which in Britain developed into Anglo-Norman. Many Norman and French loanwords entered the language in this period, especially in vocabulary related to the church, the court system and the government. The system of orthography that became established during the Middle English period is by and large still in use today – later changes in pronunciation, however, combined with the adoption of various foreign spellings, mean that the spelling of modern English words appears highly irregular.

    Early Modern English – the language used by Shakespeare – is dated from around 1500. It incorporated many Renaissance-era loans from Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as borrowings from other European languages, including French, German and Dutch. Significant pronunciation changes in this period included the ongoing Great Vowel Shift, which affected the qualities of most long vowels. Modern English proper, similar in most respects to that spoken today, was in place by the late 17th century. The English language came to be exported to other parts of the world through British colonisation, and is now the dominant language in Britain and Ireland, the United States and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many smaller former colonies, as well as being widely spoken in India, parts of Africa, and elsewhere. Partially due to United States influence, English gradually took on the status of a global lingua franca in the second half of the 20th century. This is especially true in Europe, where English has largely taken over the former roles of French and (much earlier) Latin as a common language used to conduct business and diplomacy, share scientific and technological information, and otherwise communicate across national boundaries. The efforts of English-speaking Christian missionaries has resulted in English becoming a second language for many other groups.[citation needed]

    Old English consisted of a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established in different parts of Britain. The Late West Saxon dialect eventually became dominant; however, a greater input to Middle English came from the Anglian dialects. Global variation among different English dialects and accents remains significant today. Scots, a form of English traditionally spoken in parts of Scotland and the north of Ireland, is sometimes treated as a separate language.

  • Clyda

    The first time I heard the British reference “jumper” for a sweater was when I was watching Harry Potter with my kids. Ginny Weasley asking her mother where her jumper was. It made no sense to me as American. It seemed like such a random request. In America the word jumper refers to a sleeveless pullover dress that you wear over a blouse or sweater and it’s often made of corduroy.

  • Beverley Gelonesi

    Born in the 60’s in Australia. The word sweater in Australia didn’t really arrive until the 1980’s with commercial sweatshirts for training gear. Jumper was always used for pullover garments to keep warm, knitted of course!

  • Ponto

    I don’t agree with Mike who sounds paranoid. American English is a dialect derived from immigrants from the Britain who were not well educated in the language, and contained many British dialect words, and modified by all those foreign immigrants that went to the Land of the Free especially the Germans. It is not the words used that bothers me, it is the pronunciation of multi syllabic words. Americans always put the emphasis in the wrong place, and sound like idiots. Why do you pronounce buttocks like Butt Ox? I suggest you stay clear of words containing two or more syllables.

    I find the word Sweater sounds rather disgusting. Who wants to wear something that makes you sweat? As for jumpers I don’t wear them. Pullover is another word for Jumper. Most people wear “Hoodies” today. So jumper will become obsolete like pinafore, smock or those other words people have used here.

    In Australia we use other words for clothing you may not understand: Jersey, Cardigan, Guernsey. Look them up, and learn another English dialect.

  • Michael Lewis

    Hi all. Reading all the posts, what started as a light-hearted post but turned into a slagging match, so I will not join in that but just say what I know as a Londoner born in the 50’s.

    We knew this article of clothing as a Jumper, Pullover, Sweater, Jersey. All were the same but style and occasion often led to word association. A cardigan (to me) is something different and was something that buttoned up at the front, fairly loose fitting and often (but not always) quite heavy. It was also not unusual to have two pockets on the front.

    My understanding of these words came from my mum and dad and other adults and presumably, their understanding came from their parents.

    In the Early 60’s, going to school during the colder months, I wore a V neck jumper. V neck so you could see the shirt and tie underneath. A Crewe neck jumper/pullover was something more casual. Cannot remember wearing crewe necks too often as a kid and for some reason, I tend to associated the crewe neck with 3 things. Some fancy Dan bloke, often seen in old British films wearing a cravat under it or (bizarrely) Steve McQueen as the clean cut all American boy in films again. Also academics such as teachers or college/university types. The sweater was associated with the roll neck and in my mind, associated with Naval and military types ( again films drove this thought) and outdoor, cold weather types like farmers, shepherds etc.

    Again, teachers and academics are associated with roll neck sweaters, often with leather patches on the elbows.

    There was also the polo neck pullover which was really a fashion garment and usually light weight. I think I might have even worn these myself during the 70’s.

    Anyway, that is my take on it. I am not saying it is right but just that it is how I remember things. Chances are, I forgot some things or remembered wrongly so happy to be reminded by anybody who remembers something different.

  • Steve

    I’m 66, my dad’s folks were Irish and he called a sweater a jumper as far back as I can remember.

  • R. Mark Tolleson

    Yeah well, sod off with your codswallop, tossers!

  • Timmy

    You had it right in paragraph two. The english do purposely use words that are different from words used in America. There are dozens of examples of this. American English is in fact closer to the English spoken in the Colonial Period. American accents are closer to the English accent spoken in the Colonial period.
    The english even stop using common words that they’ve used for over 100 years just because Americans start using them. Example: soccer.
    It’s always fun to watch english people claim to have “invented” the language as well. They had little to nothing to do with it.
    Then there’s the idiocy that they all seem to possess that prevents them from understanding that, unlike their tiny, tiny, little country, the United States is vast, which leads to many different pronunciations of the same word in different regions. Kind of like what happens in england too, even though it is a very tiny, tiny, country. So when I see idiotic comments like this one: “It is not the words used that bothers me, it is the pronunciation of multi syllabic words. Americans always put the emphasis in the wrong place, and sound like idiots. Why do you pronounce buttocks like Butt Ox?” I just have to laugh some more at their ignorance. By the way, “multi syllabic” is one word.
    I won’t go into the hundreds of mispronunciations committed by the english while they butcher the language they “invented”.

  • admin

    Hey, can we pretty please stop calling other commenters idiots? Michael Lewis above said it best: “What started as a light-hearted post…turned into a slagging match…”

  • Loving all the banter! The word ‘jumper’ was in common use in the 1950’s by my parents and grand parents too. It has clearly been around fo a long time. Also, I believe the French word ‘jupe’ means a skirt. So nil points so far. Anyone got any other theories?

  • Hugh

    Thank you for such a great post and sorry that ‘Beth’ had to start a flame when she brought up – “An interesting opinion, however would just like to point out that ‘American language’ in English, from England and America was found by Britain therefore if there is a ‘normal first language’ it is British.”

    You were perfectly right to say that the Brits, did not find/found America.
    If anything, perhaps the first true Americans were the Asians who crossed over around 15,000bc from what we now call the baring straights and it wasn’t until another 16,500 years after this that the first waves of Europeans started arriving.

    As a child, I was fascinated at how Apaches and other native American Indians resembled the Indochinese.
    For as long as I can remember I have always been interested in people, languages, and culture for what divides us also binds us.

    Ignorance is not specific to a race but to a class of lazy people who choose to speculate ideas rather than educate themselves to facts.

    Thank you, ‘Word Detective’ for a neutral and educating look into the world of words and language.

  • Gina Drummond

    Hi, I stumbled over this discourse – and sticking to the original topic – I grew up in New Zealand in the 1960s and am a knitter, and have always called a knitted woollen one-piece garment with long arms, a ‘jumper’. The term ‘pullover’ was also used. I checked with my mother, who was born in New Zealand in the 1930s, and she always knew them as ‘jumpers’. I was introduced to the term ‘sweater’ through American knitting pattern books.

  • Peter McCabe

    I think many of the British and American readers of this thread might enjoy a book titled “British English A to Zed, by Norman W. Schur (New York, HarperCollins, 1987). Although a revised edition was published around 2002, I think the original edition is better, but having both is best.

Leave a Reply to admin Cancel reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!