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.