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shameless pleading


Look out below

Dear Word Detective: My friends at college comprise a fairly diverse group, U.S. region-wise, and so we’ve had the requisite “soda vs. pop” arguments, and commented on the strange speaking habits of those of our number from the West Coast (“Hella”? Really?). But probably the most bizarre thing we’ve come across is that the guy from West Virginia calls a knit hat worn in the wintertime a “toboggan.” The rest of us agree that a “toboggan” is a sled. So we were wondering if you could enlighten us: where in the world did this other use of the word come from? — Andrea.


Not amused.

Perhaps from certain people sliding downhill on their heads? Honestly, I don’t know why it’s so hard for some places to get simple terminology right. I definitely need to note this “toboggan” nonsense in my next book on regional linguistic confusion, provisionally titled “Don’t You Dare Call that Stuff Pizza” (a sequel to my best-selling “No, Virginia, That is Not a Bagel”).

Just kidding, of course. Regional variations in language are the soul of American English (and keep people like me in business). Incidentally, “hella” (probably a cropping of either “helluva” or “hellacious”) is slang meaning “extremely” (“Going hella fast”) or “lots of” (Hella cats you’ve got”), first appeared in the late 1980s, and is usually considered native to Northern California, although the earliest print citation for it in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a newspaper in Toronto. Go, as they say, figure.

I actually almost explained “toboggan” in the sense you mention a few years ago, but I ran out of room in that column. I was grappling with the fact that what I and many others had for years been calling a “watch cap” is now evidently known as a “beanie.” A “watch cap,” of course, is a close-fitting knitted cap, often made of wool, originally worn by sailors in the US Navy while “on watch” (posted on deck) in cold weather. A “beanie,” until recently, was a much lighter skullcap, sometimes sporting a small propeller on top, often worn by small children in the 1930s and 40s. Sometime in the 1990s, however, skateboarding fans decided that a “beanie” was any sort of knitted cap, even if made of thick wool, and the rest of the world obediently fell in line. Go figure again.

Compared to “hella” and “beanie,” the transformation of “toboggan” you mention actually makes a fair amount of sense. A “toboggan” is, of course, a simple type of sled, usually consisting of a flat slab of light wood with the forward edge turned up. Modern toboggans can often seat three or more riders, which is nice because then you’re not lonely when you hit that tree. The word “toboggan” is derived from “tobakun,” the Canadian Algonquian Indian word for such sleds, and first appeared in English in the early 19th century. “Toboggan” meaning a knit cap comes from “toboggan cap,” a long woolen hat (essentially an elongated watch cap) considered appropriate headgear while tobogganing in the early 20th century. The use of “toboggan” by itself to mean a woolen cap dates to around 1929, and seems fairly widespread in the US today, often in contexts far from the sledding slopes (“He [a burglar] was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants, police said,” Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, 1975).

12 comments to Toboggan

  • Mim Carrington

    When I was a kid we called knitted hats ‘beanies'; this was in the mid-late 1970s in Canberra, Australia… so maybe not the sk8erboyz fault (although they are probably responsible for a large amount of other language demolition).

  • “Bean” seems to be a British term for “head” or “person.” I originated ‘north of Beantown,’ also called ‘Downeast,’ where a lot of old Brit slang still lurks. “She bonked him on the bean,” for example.

  • Nancy

    Very common here in northeastern North Carolina — in fact, no other term is used that I know of

  • Dave

    In western Virginia we also called knitted caps tobboggans. I never knew it meant anything else until I went to university.

  • Brian

    I’ve always known it to be a hat. That’s what it was always called when I was a kid. Never knew it to be anything different.

  • Eddie

    I had an experience where I used the word in reference to a hat, and my friends AND my husband laughed at me hysterically as if they thought I’d lost my mind. The funny part is I didn’t argue as I second-guessed my own sanity. I haven’t owned or worn a toboggan since I was a kid nor used the word in a conversation ( I live in the desert southwest). I really did wonder if I had completely misunderstood the word as a kid and had just never been corrected as an adult. I did make my friends eat crow.

  • joe

    The thing you slide on is called a sled.

  • george scotton

    Using toboggan, to mean a knit cap, is a bastardization of the word toque, meaning a knit cap.

  • Kay

    It does cause a little confusion in the northern states as well. When I called it a toboggan in New Hampshire, I was also corrected and laughed at by my son’s wife as well , I soon learned there was quite a few things different between the North and the South’s thinking but of course I had my son to straighten her out. Lol

  • Max

    I grew up in North Carolina and we all referred to them as toboggans. Since moving elsewhere I have yet to meet anyone else who calls it that, though it is firmly ingrained in my mind.

  • Sandra

    Thanks, the shortening from Toboggan hat makes sense of the otherwise confusing!! Of course here in Canuck-land a knitted hat is a toque, and a watchcap is a specific type of toque (navy or black, tight fitting, rib knit and worn with a folded cuff)

  • I have always used toboggan for stocking cap. Everyone I know does however, my nephew went to Chicago for college and his roommates made fun of him. They said “You’re putting a sled on your head?”

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