Dungarees & Jeans

Or maybe they’re compensating for global warming.

Dear Word Detective: While reading your recent column, I reflected that the word “sneaker” was again OK to use. It seemed to be anathema for a while. One had to refer to “running shoes” or “court shoes” to be appropriate. I guess I had a light day at work because I started musing about other words from my youth that seem to be passe. Everyone wore “dungarees” that later morphed into “jeans.” I recall the lifers in the service referring to the work uniform as “dungarees.” What’s the origin of “dungaree” and who the heck was Jean? — Ed Callan.

Hmm. Wasn’t “Dungaree” a song by the Grateful Dead? I could have sworn they played it at Woodstock. Never mind. Clothing terminology seems to change every year (probably something to do with, duh, selling clothes?), and I decided a while back to ignore the whole business. I must say, however, that the quality of clothing has declined precipitously in the past few years. I’ve been wearing Wrangler jeans since I was old enough to drive, and every pair I’ve bought over the past five years seems flimsier than the last. The company seems to be aiming to eventually market blue facial tissue.

I actually answered a question about “dungarees” some years ago, but many of you were probably too taken with the Teenage Ninja Turtles at the time to pay attention, so we’ll give it another shot.

“Dungarees” is indeed simply another, now antiquated, term for what we call “jeans,” casual trousers made of denim, most often blue in color. The name “dungarees” is a relic of the British colonial presence in India. “Dungri” was the Hindi name of a particular type of thick, durable cotton cloth exported from India to England in the 18th century, originally used to make sails and tents. Eventually “dungri” cloth was pressed into service in the manufacture of work clothes, gained an extra syllable in its name, and became “dungaree.”

I doubt that if you were to wander into the average American department store today and ask for a pair of “dungarees” that the clerk would know where to look, but while the term has definitely faded on this side of the Atlantic, it seems to have acquired a new meaning in Britain. According to a draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary dated 2006, “dungaree” over there now means “trousers with a bib held up by shoulder straps,” or what we in the US have been calling “overalls” for the past 150 years.

“Jeans,” as in “blue jeans,” has a remarkably simple origin. It’s simply an altered form of the name “Genoa,” in Italy, once an important source of the cloth. Similarly, “denim” is a mutation of “serge de Nimes,” referring to Nimes, France, also an early source of the fabric.

23 comments on this post.
  1. Tristen:

    Great article. With jeans priced from $12.00 for a pair of Wranglers to $200.00 for designer jeans and now designer jean stores are opening up from Las Vegas to New York, looks like they are here to stay. Who would ever think the blue jean would get so popular when Strauss started his business?

  2. Mark Hussey:

    For the record, as footwear, ‘sneakers’ are not made on a last – perhaps that is historical rather than current. THAT is (was) the difference between sneakers and all the other athletic shoes

  3. Nichola:

    I’ve just added this post in Delicious, i am grateful.

  4. anthony ashton:

    The difference between overalls and dungarees is overalls have sleeves so calling dungarees overalls would cause arguements every day here

  5. Rick Kedenburg:

    We called them dungarees in the 50’s & 60″s. We rolled or folded them at the bottom to show the light inner part. Considered very COOL.

  6. william g sullivan II:

    Thinking about this tonight. I remember 25 years ago my friend great grandmother inquiring why were we wearing dungarees. Only farmers wore those. So in my “infinte wisdom” I started thinking and equating. Ok farm. cow. dung. Dungarees. Maybe? Maybe not? Thanks for clarifying this for me.

  7. Bob Miller:

    Coveralls have sleeves. Overalls or Bib Overalls do not have sleeves.

  8. Cynthia Moore:

    This from Fashion From Victoria to the New Millennium by Daniel Delis Hill:

    In 1853, German immigrant Levi Strauss set up a business in California to sell supplies to the gold-rush miners and other retailers. In 1872, he was contacted by one of his customers, a tailor in Nevada, with an idea for riveting the corners of pants pockets to secure them against tearing. Lacking the funds for a patent, the tailor suggested a partnership, which Strauss accepted. The following year the two entrepreneurs began to manufacture a waist-high, riveted overall made of a heavy French twill cotton called serge de Nimes, from which we get the word denim. The fabric—and later the pants—also came to be called jeans after the “genes,” or Genoese sailors, whose trousers were made of the material.

  9. Jer Leach:

    I head that there is a difference between dungarees and denim or jeans. That one, or the other, the cotton yarn is dyed before being woven the other being dipped in dye after being woven.

  10. Wyrdness:

    The difference between dungarees and jeans is the cut. Dungarees are cut to fall straight down off the hips, abdomin, and buttox, while jeans are cut so that they conform to the shape of the abdomin, buttox, and thighs. Other than that they are the same thing.

  11. Gina:

    I’m reading an Alexander McCall Smith book set in Scotland where the brilliant little fellow called Bertie is ridiculed for wearing “dungarees” – and his mother, who is aiming at gender neutrality, is making him wear pink corduroy ones if you can imagine! Couldn’t make sense of it since eons ago we used the terms interchangeably. Now I see that Bertie was wearing what we in the US would call overalls while all the other boys had jeans or some other more conventional pant! Thanks for the information – two countries separated by a common language!

  12. Tall2lean:

    Oh, come on. This really is fanciful. Where do you get this difference between the two?

  13. Tall2lean:

    I took my Mom to England for her first trip out of the country. Down in the subways, or The Tube, as they call it, at certain stations we would hear an announcement made perfectly unintelligible by the antiquated public address. We finally came to one Tube stop that came into the station on a curve. As we heard the announcement, we saw a sign reading “Mind The Gap”. It referred to the “gap” between the straight train car and the curved platform.

    From then on, whenever we heard an English person speak, each individual word of which we might understand, but hadn’t a clue what all those words connected together in a British English sentence meant, we’d look at each other & say, “Mind The Gap!”

  14. carol cotton:

    I grew up being told that the word Dungaree comes from “Dung” because that was the type of heavy work clothes farm workers wore on cow farms while shoveling cow pies or dung.

  15. larry:

    Re Cynthia Moore’s comments about Levi Strauss. I always heard that Levi was primarily a sailmaker. The gold miners working on their hands and knees in hard rocky soil would wear out the eastern-made pants often in a matter of days, so he got the idea of making trousers out of sailcloth – MUCH more substantial and heavier than anything else available. Also, the harbor of San Francisco was filled with literally hundreds of ships that had been abandoned by crews who took off for the gold fields, so there was an excess of sailcloth that was available for next to nothing.

  16. Linda:

    I do believe that whatever we call our jeans(blue jeans, dungarees, jeans, or blue work pants)are our folk costume. Americans and especially the United States wear them more often than other pants. They also can be worn many times before they need washing! I is the “AMERICAN FOLDWEAR) as Jazz is the “AMERICAN MUSIC.” Let’s start wearing our jeans and travel around the US to hear jazz music and jazz festivals. Wait a minute, we already do that.

  17. Christine:

    I laughed when I saw Gina’s post. I am reading the same book, and came here for the same reason. I couldn’t figure out exactly what Bertie was wearing either; I associate “dungarees” with jeans, and that is obviously not what is being referred to in the book.

  18. sms5:

    I think that also depends on location – here in New York State, overalls are as described in the article; jeans with a bib and straps. The garment you described, with arms, are called coveralls.

  19. Marie Teresa:

    The difference is that dungarees were used to shovel the dung out of pig pens, cow barns and spread it around the cornfields. Now people dress down for everything, so going to church on Sundays we have to call them “jeans” in the hopes that maybe the good Lord would be “fooled” into thinking his creatures were “dressing up” out of respect for Almighty God. After all the good God would want anybody to be lazy slobs interested in “sooooo comfortable” living. I have yet to see anyone wear dungarees (jeans?) to church for the wedding day of a loved one. Wow would that bride be insulted. Gee whiz. At church? The dungaree sporting men, women and children all looking like clones clutter up the place.

  20. Meanderer:

    Wyrdness, I never heard of any difference in fit (cut) between the two There are certainly plenty of different fits or styles in the pants, but applied pretty much universally across jeans and dungarees. I thought that changing from dungarees to blue jeans to jeans was something like squid vs calamari–a matter of making something looked down on more acceptable and thus more marketable!

  21. George:

    Wrong. I wore overalls. No sleeves. Pants, bib, straps over shoulder. Small pocket on bib.

  22. Sharon:

    In the US Dungarees were straight legged work or casual pants made of denim. Popular with school kids. Overalls were made of the same material but included a bib and straps and worn by farmers. Dungarees became known as blue jeans and became available in different cuts, styles, fabrics, etc. Coveralls are work pants with attached short-sleeved shirt, all one piece.

  23. Wonder Plum:

    I was called “stuck up” for using the term “dungaree” when referring to pants while taking my teenager shopping. I was told that only people on the east coast do the United States would ever use this term. Huh? Any thoughts?

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