Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Annals of peevology: Shifting into a shift

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman recently quizzed readers about one of Richard Grant White's most fascinating peeves -- his dislike of the construction "is being built." That's only one of the gems of peevology offered by White, a 19th-century fount (or font) of entertaining prescriptivism. One of my favorite entries comes from a section of "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present" (1870) that White labeled "SQUEAMISH CANT" -- a collection of euphemisms resorted to by "people so prurient that they prick up their ears and blush at any implied distinction of sex in language, even in the name of a garment." It begins with an attack on the word chemise:
How and why English women came to call their first under-garment a chemise, it is not easy to discover. For in the French language the word means no more or less than shirt, and its meaning is not changed or its sound improved by those who pronounce it shimmy ...
Of the two names shirt and smock, given at a remote period to this garment, the first was common, like chemise in French, to both sexes. ... Shirt came to be confined to the man's garment, and smock to the woman's,  ... [but] by the large majority [smock] is now thought coarse — why, is past conjecture.  
The place of smock was taken and held for a time by shift — a very poor word for the purpose, the name of the act of changing being applied to the garment changed. As smock followed shirt, so shift has followed smock; and women have returned to shirt again, merely giving it its French name.
White even describes what Steve Pinker calls the euphemism treadmill:
It is more than possible that the granddaughters of those who now use [chemise] with no more thought that it is indelicate than stocking, may shrink as they now do from smock or shift, and for the same reason, or, rather, with the same lack of reason.*
What got my attention, though, was that aside I put in bold: White's observation that shift, the undergarment, is derived from shift meaning "to change clothes." And though his etymologies are not always accurate, this one is: The OED shows shift meaning "to change clothing" in 1400; in the 16th century, the noun shift acquired the sense a change of clothes," or what we might call an outfit:  "Of rayment he shall haue shiftes twentie" (c. 1570). And by 1601, we get shift meaning simply the undergarment -- the item of clothing most often changed, perhaps?

On the shifting succession of words for this "body-garment of linen, cotton, or the like," the OED concurs with White: "In the 17th c. smock began to be displaced by shift as a more ‘delicate’ expression; in the 19th c. the latter, from the same motive, gave place to chemise."

White claimed to hope that "good sense, simplicity, and real purity of thought should drive out the silly shame" that led people to use such euphemisms. But somehow I don't think Victoria's Secret was the kind of plain-spoken good sense he had in mind.

*I've broken White's text into several paragraphs for ease of reading.


Bryan White said...

So, does that mean I shouldn't "shift" my car in public?

Jean said...

"mutande" in Italian means "underpants" -- but etymologically, it means "to be changed". If you know Latin, you'll recognise the gerundive. I met it first of peasant clothing, and assumed that the outer garments stayed the same from one season to the next.

Ø said...

Someone has got to comment here, so let me say this: "Pants" means trousers in AmE but ladies underpants in BrE; "vest" means waistcoat in AmE but gent's undershirt in BrE (or so they say). What's the history there, and does it involve some euphemism treadmill action?

Anonymous said...

Correction - "pants" and "vests" are underwear for either sex in the UK. I assume that "pants" was an abbreviation of "pantaloons", an intermediate form between knee-breeches and trousers worn in the early 19th century.