Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

In one's stockinged feet

In one’s stockinged feet

This is a story of the word stocking. Silk stocking districts, bluestockings, and Christmas stockings will not interest us today. Stockings, just plain stockings, Sir, as one of Dickens’s characters might say. One does not need to be an etymologist to suggest that stocking consists of stock- and –ing. The trouble is that though –ing occurs in some nouns (for instance, in offing and inkling), it looks odd in stocking (compare some phrase like stocking the cupboard with food, where it seems to be perfectly in place). Also, few English words have more seemingly incompatible senses than stock. Our great authority and the author of the ever-green English etymological dictionary Walter W. Skeat made short shrift of that variety. He wrote (so in the latest Concise version): “The old sense was a ‘stump; hence a post, trunk, stem, a fixed store, fund, capital, cattle, stalk, butt-end of a gun, &c.” It is the &c. that looks especially troublesome. For example, in the etc. region, we find a flower called “stock.” The flower is beautiful but not particularly “stocky.” Even the path from “stump” to “fund, capital” is far from trivial. Stock means “stick, staff” and is related to German Stück “piece” and its cognates elsewhere in Germanic. The proliferation of senses in such an outwardly simple noun may be left for another occasion. We only wonder how stocking got its name.

This is the flower called “stock.” Does anyone know the origin of the name?
(Photo by wildfeuer via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is possible to begin from afar and, in search of clues and analogs, look at the history of the word hose. To modern speakers the most predictable image hose evokes is one of a water pipe, but a hosier does not deal in pipes! That person’s merchandise consists of things known commercially as legwear, and indeed, German Hosen (plural) means “trousers, breeches,” while the singular form Hose refers not to a trouser leg but rather to what we today call “stocking.” Stockings, as we know them, are a late invention. In the past, men also wore some sort of tights or pantyhose, that is, a single piece, and it is no wonder that the word stocking, which refers to a separate article of clothing, emerged in English relatively late, namely, at the end of the sixteenth century. I have a quotation, whose source is not given in my source, but it looks genuine: “…our knit silke stokes and Spanish leather shoes.” We note: stokes, not stockings.

Apparently, stockings were first called just stocks, and that is why the suffix –ing in the modern word is puzzling. In older texts, –ing alternates with –in, but this –in does not look like a familiar phonetic variant of –ing, as in I am comin’ and so forth. More likely, there was an adjective stocken (with the same suffix as in woolen and silken), misunderstood as or confused with the present participle stockin’. This is my guess. Yet similar substitutions sometimes occur with other endings. For instance, the adjective stubborn may go back to stubbing. Though such a form has not been recorded, the Icelandic cognate of stubborn (the only one that exists) ends in –inn (English –orn remains a riddle). Other than that, –in and –ing once varied in many words and today occur in nouns, obviously not connected with any verb (cf. shilling and farthing). 

A trunk hose in its untruncated glory.
(Image: “Sir Walter Ralegh”, National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Amid all this uncertainty, one thing arouses no doubts: stocking has the root stock “trunk, stem, stump.” A telling parallel is German Strumpf “stocking,” in some way related to the adjective stumpf “blunt,” an unquestionable cognate of English stump. The earliest meaning of Strumpf was indeed “stump.” A stocking and a trouser leg evoked associations with a stick, truncated tree, and the like. The English word trunk hose (trunk-!) makes the association between a stocking or a trouser leg with a stump especially clear.

I am quoting part of the definition of trunk hose from The Century Dictionary: “Properly, that part of the hose which covered the trunk or body, as distinguished from those parts which covered the limbs….” This is the comment by Ernest Weekley: “Professor Skeat suggests ‘trunked (i.e. truncated) hose’. The use of stock, stocking, and German Strumpf, all meaning properly ‘stump’, ‘trunk’, suggests that trunk hose is a similar formation.” Trunk was borrowed from French, but we are interested in the imagery, rather than the source of the word, and in our attempt to understand the imagery behind stocking, the word trunk hose looks as though it has been made to order. There is even no need to refer to truncate or truncated here.

Stockings were such a noticeable innovation that, for example, the Russian name of this article of apparel (chulók) was borrowed from the East. By contrast, socks have been known since very old times. In Old English, the word meant “light shoe” (!). Yet even sock traveled to the Germanic languages (and to the Celts) from Greek via Latin. (This may be the right place to note that words related to clothes travel easily all over the world, change along the way, become domesticated, but often hopelessly opaque from an etymological point of view. Incidentally, one of such words is shoe.) The distant source of sock has no recoverable etymology and may too have been a borrowing from some Oriental language. The suggestion sounds reasonable. Since the shoes known as socks were often made of cloth, the name was easy to transfer to what we today do call socks.

Buskin: neither bus nor kin. An almost forgotten object and an almost forgotten word.
(Image by Pearson Scott Foresman, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The Greek word, whatever its origin, became widely known, because comedians wore socks, unlike tragic actors, whose boots (buskins) were known as cothurni. I am pleased to add that buskin is a word “of much disputed origin.” As emphasized above, article of clothes and their names travel freely from land to land. Those who would like to harvest something on native soil, may find solace in the fact that the idiom to blow (knock) one’s socks off “to perform an astonishing feat” was coined in the American south and has a possible pugilistic origin. It was apparently known as early as the middle of the nineteenth century but suddenly became popular (read: overused) in the 1980s and soon traveled overseas.

Such is the unfinished history of the word stocking, with a few thoughts on the origin of sock, thrown in for good measure.

Featured image: Paolo da Visso – The front of a cassone with three scenes from Boccaccio’s Teseida (1440), by cea+ via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Chris

    It would never occur to me to say “in one’s stockinged feet”; it’s always “stocking feet” for me.

    I wonder if “leggings” is a parallel or simply derived from the model of “stockings.”

  2. Irene de Bruyn

    In Afrikaans, shoes are “skoene” (Pl). I’m wondering if there’s a link between skin – skoene – shoes…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.