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.

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