The phrase is outdated, rare, even moribund. Those who use it do so to amuse themselves or to parade their antiquarian tastes. However, it is not quite dead, for it sometimes occurs in books published at the end of the nineteenth century. A sleeveless errand is a fool’s errand, a fruitless endeavor. Alive or expiring, for an etymologist this idiom is extremely interesting. Though both words in it are clear, no one knows who went on errands without sleeves and failed. People began to speak about such errands at the end of the sixteenth century, continued to do so for a hundred years, and then stopped. Shakespeare loved this idiom, for in Troilus and Cressida he plays with it like a cat with a desperate mouse (sleeve, sleeve, sleeve, sleeveless errand). Curiously, the origin of the phrase was obscure even very long ago, for the earliest dictionaries had no clue to its derivation or offered fanciful guesses. Perhaps, they said, –less should not have been added to sleeve, for not sleeve but Danish sløv “blunt” is the word’s root. Or perhaps sleeveless is a “corruption” of thieveless (another most suspicious word!). This is unmitigated nonsense.
A most important fact has been adduced by Skeat, who cited the earliest uses of sleeveless. In his examples, sleeveless modified reson and words. He assumed that the epithet had originally meant “useless, inefficient” and had nothing to do with errand. He was right, and the OED confirmed his findings. Already in 1386 it was possible to use sleeveless as a synonym of vain. That this adjective survived, though for a short time, only in connection with errand is puzzling but less puzzling than why such a word, obviously meaning “without sleeves,” acquired the sense “useless.” What was there that could not be carried out efficiently in a garment devoid of sleeves?
The idea, popularized by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, that sleeveless is really sleaveless has nothing to recommend it. The word sleave exists. It means “to divide, split silk into filaments.” The noun sleave “silk in filaments” also had some currency but is now remembered, if at all, only as an echo of Macbeth (II, 2: 37): “Slepe that knits vp the rauel’d Sleeue of Care.” It can be seen that in spelling, the difference between sleeve and sleave was not always observed, which should not cause surprise, for by Shakespeare’s days, open and closed long e (ē), whose existence in Middle English can be guessed from the shape of such modern forms as see and sea, had merged. An author, writing in 1855, that is, much earlier than Brewer, explained sleeveless so: “I suspect that the word sleeve was anciently applicable to the coarse separated portions of wool or flax, as well as of silk, which was thrown aside as refuse that could not be divided into threads or unraveled by passing it through the slay of the weaver, or the combo of the wool-worker or flax-spinner, and hence sleeveless, useless, profitless like a sleeveless errand.”
Here I should risk repeating the commonsense maxim by which I abide and which I advise all historical linguists to follow: “Very clever, elaborate etymologies tend to be wrong.” The riddle before the explrer is hard, but the solution is usually simple.” Most probably, sleeveless has always meant “without sleeves.” Hard facts show that, though only the phrase sleeveless errand has survived, there is no need to harp on it, for words, rhymes, tales, and reason could also be sleeveless, some of them quite early.
Two sources of sleeveless have been suggested. One refers to the history of clothes. Sleeves could be used as pockets, while pockets, as we know them, became a standard part of our apparel only in late seventeenth century. The word pocket tells its origin, for a pocket is a small poke (bag), the selfsame poke in which we sometimes buy a pig. By contrast, sleeves have existed for a long time and were used for concealing all kinds of objects, valuables and money among them. That is why one can still have a card or a trick up one’s sleeve. The conjecture, as it was formulated in 1887 by a correspondent to Notes and Queries, is preceded by many examples of “conmen” stealing things from sleeves. His suggestion runs as follows: “Is it not then evident that ‘a sleeveless errand’ is a bootless or useless errand, one for which the errand-monger received no guerdon, no remuneration, or, metaphorically speaking, no satisfactions? Once the word ‘sleeveless’ had this signification attached to it, it was naturally used as a synonym for useless or futile.” As we have seen, the story did not begin with sleeveless errand; other things were known to be sleeveless. Why, let us repeat, was it bad to go about without sleeves?
A different hypothesis has been buried in Anthenæum for August 15, 1903. (May I note that those recondite publications are no longer hidden from researchers? They are listed in my Bibliography of English Etymology.) One can read in Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales, mythological, epic, and romantic: “Now this was the guise in which the messengers journeyed; one sleeve was on the cap of each of them in front, as sign that they were messengers, in order that through what hostile land soever they might pass no harm might be done them.” (At present, one can use a more recent translation.) The author concludes: “A sleeveless errand then would be useless, because easily prevented by the death or imprisonment of the messenger.” Here we run into the same problem as before: an attempt to derive all cases of sleeveless from sleeveless errand.
Yet there must have been some action or custom that required a sleeve without which the performance was doomed to failure, and the reference to Mabinogion may be of some use. I would like to mention a scene form Wolfram’s Parzival (an early thirteenth-century romance), which is a free translation from Old French. The great knight Gawan is ready for battle. The younger daughter of his host, Obilot, falls in love with Gawan at first sight. She is a child, perhaps six years old. Yet she knows all the rules of chivalry and asks Gawan to become her knight-servitor. Gawan, graciousness itself, agrees. But she has to present him with a ceremonial gift, so they took “…a brocade of Nourient imported from distant heathendom. It had touched her right arm but had not been sewn to her gown, not a thread had been twisted for it. This sleeve Clauditte [Obilot’s playmate] took to handsome Gawan, and at the sight of it his cares vanished away! Choosing one of his three shields he nailed it on at once. No longer did he despond.” The scene after the glorious battle: “Gawan now removed the Sleeve from his shield most carefully, lest he tear it.”
Could it not be that sleeveless is a reminder of chivalric ceremonies, that knights who did not wear their ladies’ sleeves or some sleeves on their shields had no hope to succeed in tournaments and war? After all, the word is early enough. So many of our idioms come from sports (the race is too close to call and dozens of others), and chivalry dominated medieval life for such a long period of time that an echo from its language in popular usage is not improbable. But of course, there is no evidence. What results could we expect from exploring the origin and nature of a sleeveless errand? Perhaps some friendly Obilot among our readers will offer a more persuasive conjecture to the joy of all present.
Image credits: (1) “Portrait of Agnolo Doni” by Raphael, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “The Cardsharps” by Caravaggio, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Coat of Arms of Finland” photograph by Grimne, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Chiron instructs young Achilles – Ancient Roman fresco” by Herculaneum, Augusteum (cd. Basilica), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: “The joust between the Lord of the Tournament and the Knight of the Red Rose” by Hodgson, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.