Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Sartor resartus, or some thoughts on the origin of the word “cloth” and the history of clothes

I keep clawing at the bars of the cage I built for myself. But first a digression. Walter W. Skeat wrote numerous notes on English etymology, some of which he eventually put together and published in book form. Much to my regret, not too many kl-words attracted his attention. But I was amused to discover that the verb clop means not only the sound made by shoes or hoofs but also “to cling, adhere to.” Clop is a variant of clap, a sound imitative word like click—clack—cluck, but its homonym (“to cling”) illustrates the point I have recently made in this series, namely that kl-words may exchange hostages. My example was the English verb cling “to adhere to” versus German klingen “to ring.”

PicMonkey Collage
Clop-clop-clop                                        Clap-clap-clap

Skeat also devoted some space to clove, the troublesome noun touched upon not long ago. He suggested the Italian origin of clove, the English form being “a compromise between the F. clou and the Ital. chiovo.” In my essay, I said that Skeat had refrained from explaining why he felt unimpressed by the etymology of clove in Murray’s OED. Perhaps he thought that his note would satisfy the curious. He was mistaken. Someone interested in word origins has no time for opening the countless books and articles in which something may be said about this or that item (nor is the desired bibliography available even to specialists).

Several Old English names for the articles of clothing are still extant, even if with modified meanings: (ge)wæd (long æ; now only in widow’s weeds, which few people recognize; by contrast, German Gewand is common); rēaf “the garment, etc. taken as booty,” but the plural often meant “clothes”; hrægl (rail continued into Early Modern English), and scrūd (now shroud; shred is related to it), to mention the most frequent ones. A common Old English word for “clothes” was hæteru (long æ, neuter plural; the singular form has not been recorded). Its continuation hater stayed in the language until the Middle period and is still current in some regions; one of its Indo-European cognates means “covering,” a circumstance not to be lost sight of.

PicMonkey Collage2
These are not widow’s weeds!                              These are indeed widow’s weeds.

A look at the modern language reveals the same ingenuity in naming or borrowing words for the things we wear. Consider dress (“something put right”; French), apparel (“something prepared”; French), attire (“equipment”; French), garment (“something garnished”; French), raiment (“something arrayed”; French), not to mention duds, togs, and their likes. Old English clāð (ð = th in Modern English this) meant “cloth,” that is, the fabric from which clothes were made, rather than “attire,” but its plural, as was the case with rēaf, designated “clothes.” The etymology of cloth should probably take us to the material used for making clothes rather than to some object meant for wear.

Do only clothes make the man?

The general contours of the story of cloth will be familiar to those who have followed this series. Again a West Germanic kl-word with an uncertain Scandinavian cognate, and again a somewhat dubious sticky denouement. The Dutch and German for “cloth” are kleed and Kleid respectively. The phonetic match is perfect. In older German, kleit “Kleid” appeared late and made its way southward rather slowly. In some modern dialects it is still a foreign word; in Swabia, a congener of hæteru is current. Even in Old English, clāð is absent from many texts. Consequently, we cannot know how ancient this word is and how far we have to look for its cognates. Words for “clothes” travel easily across borders, and in the Middle Ages borders were especially porous. For instance, Gothic used a Greek loanword for at least one article of clothes, namely paida. Our main Gothic text is a fourth-century translation of the New Testament from Greek. The noun occurs in Matthew V: 40, where English has “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.” Cloke (the spelling of the King James Bible), that is, cloak is the gloss for Greek chiton “tunic,” an outer garment. A past participle having the same root also turned up in Ephesians VI: 14 (English: “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness…”: girt about, that is, “clad”). The Greek word was baítē, and it meant “goatskin; (leather) coat,” but, characteristically, the noun and the participle the translator into Gothic saw in the Greek text had nothing to do with baítē. Paida was probably an everyday word, for it spread from the Goths to Old English (pād “coat”) and German, and from Germanic to Finnish (paita). Cloth is native, but this does not exclude the possibility that we are dealing with a coinage of Indo-European antiquity. The same point has been made with respect to some other kl-words.

Attempts to discover the origin of cloth began, as usual in such cases, with several random shots. Medieval Latin c(h)lēda “hurdle,” Slavic klet– “barn” (because clothes cover a body and are like home), Celtic klet “warm,” and Latin claudere “to close” have been mentioned. Those are idle fantasies. Other, even wilder, fantasies will, as always, be disregarded. The famous Germanic scholar Sophus Bugge believed that clothes were first and foremost things thrown over the body (and he cited a relevant example from Old Icelandic), but his derivation of cloth from the same root as Greek bállō “I throw” (not quite impossible from the phonetic point of view) made no stir. As is known, many words of Indo-European that begin with sk-, st-, sp-, sl-, sm-, sn-, and sw– can have doublets without initial s, the sound that was therefore called s mobile. It is not improbable that some cognates of cloth (assuming that such cognates exist) begin with sk-. If we assume that cloth is related to Greek chlōthō “I spin” and add s– to it, the semantic match will be tolerably good. But, since a Greek word with initial s- has not been attested, this reconstruction joined the graveyard at which all the previous ones are buried.

The one and only breakthrough happened in 1891, when A. Erdmann brought out a booklet on cloth and felt. In his opinion, cloth has the root one sees in Greek gloiós “sticky,” the very root discussed last week in the post on clean. In Erdmann’s reconstruction, cloth emerged as “something pressed together” (with reference to fulling)—a fabric of course, not a garment. I am not aware of any criticism of this etymology, except that Bugge offered his own derivation and pointed out that Old Icelandic klæði was thrown over the body. But of course, clothes are made of cloth, so that Bugge’s objection does not go too far. The modern dictionaries that are not entirely noncommittal and don’t send us away with the foolproof formula “origin unknown” offer the etymologies of cloth resembling Erdmann’s.

As to the Icelandic look-alike, it too has been the object of involved speculation. The discussion centered on the question: native or borrowed from West Germanic? Sifting the arguments for and against each of the two solutions, with a long digression on Saami, would distract us from our topic. Suffice it to say that at present most philologists look upon klæði as a borrowing from Old Frisian. Oh yes, one more thing: clothed and clad owe their difference to phonetics.

If Erdmann was right, cloth will find a place in the perennial papers of the great and famous sticky club and join cleave, clover, clean, and other honorable and honorary members.

Image credits: (1) “Grey horse” by Yellowhorse. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Applause” by niekverlaan. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “Joyce and her ‘shears’…wild woman!” by Larry Jacobsen. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (4) “Woman in mourning” by Bertha Wegmann (1846-1926). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (5) “Skeletons” by Clker-Free-Vector-Images. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. Featured image credit: “Cloth” by lukibrasil123. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    “The problem discussed in Die Grundbedeutung und Etymologie der Wörter Kleid und Filz im Germanischen (Upsala, 1891) is limited in scope, but the solution proposed has been universally accepted. As a piece of etymological research the paper is a model performance.” From “Axel Erdmann, a Memoir” p. xi in Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes (1930), Early English Text Society E.S. no. 125

  2. Kari McBride

    It’s not clear above why cloth can’t derive from chlōthō. Why would there have needed to be an initial s in the Greek?

  3. MHA

    Maybe it’s just because I happen to be eating pesto pasta salad with lots of peas in it, but your references to baítē and paita made me wonder if these words could be related to “peacoat.” A quick search finds a Finnish origin for that.

  4. Xerîb

    The Greek is κλώθω, that is klōthō, not *χλώθω, which your transliteration *chlōthō would represent. Of course, any proposed etymological connection of κλώθω to cloth remains a mere Scheingleichung all the same.

  5. Constantinos Ragazas

    I concur with the view that “cloth” derives from the Greek κλώθω. Since κλώθω means “spin”. Which is how you make the thread which makes the cloth. The Greek for thread is klosti.

  6. Jaydeepsinh Rathod

    Let me add my two cents here. Greek klotho (spin) appears to have a cognate in Sanskrit krinatti (to twist threads, to spin). The *l to *r shift in Indo-Iranian is well-known.

    Referring to the word cloth there is a Sanskrit word Kritti/Krutti which means a garment made of skin. This maybe cognate of the English word cloth. According to the Monier Williams Sanskrit English Dictionary the root of the Sanskrit word is *krut which means to cut off or cut in pieces, divide etc. It seems to go back to a PIE root *(s)ker or *kwer both of which mean to cut.

    So maybe the English word cloth is directly derived from PIE and comes from the act of cutting or tearing off to get a piece of cloth.

Comments are closed.