Haberdashers sell hats and other furnishings for men. Milliners cater to women. They are called milliners because their wares used to come from Milan, a town once famous for textiles, but no one can tell for sure how haberdashers got their name. A town Haberdash did not exist in medieval Europe. The merchandise known in the English speaking world as haberdashery is called Galanterie in German. The association is with galas and by extension with fine clothes. French also has galanterie, but it means “gallantry.” Nothing in the word haberdashery makes one think of elegance, joy, or refined behavior. The closeness of -dashery to dashing is accidental. The same holds for balderdash, a word of undiscovered origin with which haberdashery has once been compared on account of its referring to all kinds of trifles (“nonsense”).
In the first quarter of the 18th century, gentlemen wore burdashes, or berdashes around the waist, that is, fringed sashes (another recorded meaning of burdash is “lace cravat”), and haberdasher has been repeatedly derived from berdash, but the comparison should be rejected for three reasons: 1) haberdasher, although a rare word, was in use as early as the 14th century, whereas berdash ~ burdash emerged in the reign of Queen Anne; 2) if we agree that berdash and haberdasher are related, ha- will be left unaccounted for; 3) berdash itself lacks a convincing derivation, and one immutable law of etymology sounds so: a word of obscure origin should never be used to explain another obscure word (I have mentioned this law more than once in my previous posts). So we will let the fops in the court of Queen Anne and King George I make merry, without asking them questions about the history of their apparel, the more so because, as has been observed by countless wits, Queen Anne is dead.
The first etymological dictionary of English was published in 1617 by John Minsheu, aka Minshaeus, for in those days authors usually Latinized their names. He thought that haberdasher goes back to the German phrase habt ihr das “have you (got) this?”—allegedly, “the expression of the shopkeeper offering his wares to sale.” This is folk etymology, pure and simple, but such phrases do occasionally become words. For instance, was ist das? “what is it?” traveled from German to French (accent and all, with t substituted for d) and became vasistas “little window.” From French it reached Russian (no longer current, but remembered because it occurs in Chapter 1 of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin). Apparently, people used to hear some noise, open their window, and ask: “What is it?” Dutch haberdoedas, gibberish, but an exact counterpart of Minsheu’s invented question, means “a box on the ear” (!). It is a facetious reshaping of German hab’ du das (approximately, “you’ve got one”). Other phrases suspected of giving rise to haberdasher are French avoir d’acheter ~ haber d’acheter “to have to buy,” German Habe “goods, wares” + tauschen “to exchange,” Dutch kopen “to buy” + d(w)aas “silly, foolish” (the Dutch etymology is Skinner’s; Skinner was the author of the second etymological dictionary of English, 1671), the Latin verbs habere ~ deber used in bookkeeping, Irish Gaelic ambach (avach) “neck” + deise, deas (dash) “clothes; fitting, symmetrical, suitable; hence haberdashery “things suitable for the neck”; so Charles MacKay, who after writing several good books about Shakespeare’s language and other subjects, set out to show that most English words are of Gaelic origin), and even the nonexistent compound sabretacherie (“the haberdasher being the man who, in an age, when all men who could afford to buy anything, went more or less armed, purveyed those kickshaws of man’s attire, which were not furnished either by the silk mercer or the armourer”).
Haberdasher has come down to us in several forms, including haburdassher. One of the older spellings of avoirdupois, whose earliest recorded meaning was “merchandise sold by weight” and which often turned up with initial h-, for instance, (h)aberdepeis looks like the etymon (source) of haberdasher. The comparison of -eis with French ais “a board on which the dealer in small wares would display his goods” reminds one of a statement Richardson, the author of the once famous 19th-century dictionary, made about his illustrious predecessor: “Skinner runs away.” The avoirdupois etymology still has supporters. The others have long since been forgotten, though Minsheu’s phrase turns up every now and then in modern publications.
We don’t expect haberdashers to sell their wares by weight, and an attempt to explain haberdasher through avoirdupois, with or without initial h-, seems to be a long shot, but in the Middle Ages haberdashery included “daggers, swords, ouches [that is, owches “clasps, brooches, etc.’], aiglets [that is, aglets “stay-laces”], Spanish girdles, French cloths, Milan caps, glasses, painted cruizes [crosses], dials, tables, cards, dolls, puppets, ink-horns, tooth-picks, fine earthen pots, pins and points, hawks’ bells, salt-cellars, spoons, knives, and tin dishes.” A 1595 author speaks of a “fellow” loading his sleeve with “fuel from the haberdashers.” Even in that interminable list we do not find a single item that could have been put on a scale. It is no wonder that Hensleigh Wedgwood, an active etymologist of the pre-Skeat era, distinguished between haberdasher “peddler” and haberdasher “maker of hats” and offered separate etymologies for them. For the same reason, haberdasher has often been compared with haversack, a word that English borrowed from French, and French from German. In German it designated a bag in which cavalry carried the oats for their horses (haber– is “oats” in German). It is a late word in both French (no attestations before 1612) and English and an improbable etymon (source) of haberdasher. The chance is also small that we are dealing with two different words, as Wedgwood preferred to think.
The only breakthrough in the research into the origin of haberdasher happened in 1862, when Henry T. Riley, a most reliable editor, discovered Anglo-French hapertas, occurring once in a legal document, and in close proximity the word haberdashrie, mentioned along with wool, fur, etc. He defined hapertas as “a cloth of a peculiar texture, probably coarse and thick.” Ever since it has been believed that hapertas is a fabric from which the original haberdashery was made. Such was Riley’s opinion (“[i]n the word hapertas there can be little doubt that we have the origin of our present word haberdasher”), and his etymology can be found in nearly all our dictionaries that commit themselves as to the origin of the modern English word. Riley’s suggestion violates the law that prohibits explaining one obscure word by referring to another equally obscure one (see above). The meaning of hapertas is unknown (it is not even quite clear why Riley decided that the stuff was coarse and thick), and the difference between p/t in it and b/d in haberdashery has not been explained. Skeat devoted a special article to this problem, but no trace of it remained in the last edition of his dictionary. The idea that hats were made from hapertas is uninspiring guesswork, and we are left in the dark with regard to the two early meanings of haberdasher that worried Wedgwood (in my opinion, it is the main question, for the original haberdasher seems to have been a peddler or badger, rather than a hatter).
I will skip discussion of the words haberjet(t) (it is haberject in dictionaries “a kind of cloth made in very early times in England, said to be of a mixed color, and also to have been worn chiefly by monks”), ha(u)bergeon, and hauberk (both mean “a piece of armor; neck protector”). They are phonetically close to haberdasher, but their history does not overlap that of haberdasher. Today we are not a whit closer to understanding the origin of haberdasher than we were in 1617. A good, predictably inconclusive survey of the main conjectures appeared in The Century Dictionary (I never miss a chance to praise this excellent work). Despite the support of Riley’s etymology by Skeat and the OED, hapertas appears to have nothing or very little to do with haberdasher. Some German word may be its etymon, or, to put us all to shame, it can go back to the phrase habt ihr das?
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”