Boys' Foreign-Language Clothing Glossary: Anglo-American English Language Terms

Figure 1.--English boys refer to "shorts" as "short trousers". American boys call them "short pants", but both commonly use the term "shorts". English boys will call the socks "turn-over-top socks" but now more commonly "long socks". Americans will call them "kneesocks".

Here we will list differences we know of concerning different versions of English as they pertain to clothing. While most of the terms are understood in both countries some terms are more common in each country and some terms can be the cause of misunderstandings. While many of these terms are undestandable in both America and Britain, some have very different meanings and will not be correctly understood. The most obvious is "knickers", but there are many other words with either different meanings or are not commonly used in one country or the other. Most English-language terms are addressed on the main English-language glossary page. Here we will just list the terms that have different meanings in America and England or are not widely used in both countries.

American English

A destincr spoken American English developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time the Atlantic provided a degree of sparation far beyond our modern era of electroinic communication. The flow of population was a one-way route. English and other European settlers came to America, but very few American colonists ever made thecteturn trip to England. The merger of English colonists wiyh German, Dutch, Swedish and other Europeans helped to create destinctioins in spoken American English. It was Noah Webster (1758-1843) who helped formulate destinctions in written English. He was a teacher who decided that American children should have after the Revolution, new American textbooks. He completed A Gramatical Instituted of the English Langauage (1783). It included the famed "Blue-backed Speller". It played a major role in helping to standardize spelling and pronunciation. He also promoted copyright laws. Webster is besk known for his dictionary. He found that while working on his speller that the American people were using many new words not used in Britain. These words thus did not appear in British dictionaries. It was at this time that Webster decided to devote himself to preparing an American dictionary. It proved to be an enormous undertaking. He published his first dictionary with 40,000 words (1806). He soughjt to simplify spelling. Many of the differences between English and British spelling date from the time of Wenster publishing his dictionary. This includes words like centre/center, colour/color, and programme/program. Webster worked for 22 years longer to produce a more complete dictionary. His final version included 70,000 words (1828). The G & C Merriam Company after Webster's death purchased the rights to produce future editions (1843). The dictionary is now called the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and has over 225,000 definitions. This includes many words of non-English origins. The acquisition of the American southwst in the Mexican War resulted in adding many Spanush-origin words to American English. And the large-scale European immigration of the late-19th and early-20th century resulted in the addition of more words of non-English origins.

Specific Terms

There are numerous words that have different meanings in American and British English. There are also different words used in Ametica and Britan. Quite a number of these differences relate to clothing and grments. Here are the words tht we have collected. We incourage freaders to tell us about any additional words related to clothing.

Bathing suit/trunks: Both terms are understood in American and Britain, but suit is more commonly used in America and trunks on Britain.

Braces (English): English term for the straps or bands worn over the shoulder to hold up trousers. American term: Suspenders.

Brolly (English): Affectionate British abbreviation for umbrella.

Cuffs (American): The English term for trouser cuffs is "turnups".

Dungarees (American): Dungarees as in England has been used for overall work clothes. By the 1940s dungarees was being used for jeans (without the bib front) worn by boys. The American usage evolved from Anglo-Indian term. Apparently the usage was regional. A California reader tells us that the term was never used in California. Young Americans by the 2000s may not be familair with it. A HBC reader reports, "I have never heard anyone from the west coast use the word `dungarees' for anything. When we heard people use that word, we knew that they were easterners."

Dunagree (English): Dungaree in singular means a coarse Indian calico. This Indian term is the origin of the American word as well. In plural, dungasrees means overalls made of dungaree or similar material, worn especially by workers. Commonly used for trousers with a bib worn by workmen or children. In the 1990s, overalls even became a fashion garment for teenasgers, but motre in America than England. The original Hindi was "dungri" which was first used. A HBC reader reports, "I have an English catalog from 1973 that used "dungarees" for bib overalls.

Jumper (American): A one piece sleeveless dress worn by women and children. It was commonly used for school uniforms, but since the 1990s has become less common in England, although we note that it is worn at many American schools.

Jumper (English): A pullover sweater. The English will understand the term "pullover" or "pullover sweater". While the current British usage for jumper is sweater, we note that as late as the 1920s that the term was being used for a little boy's tunic-like outfit. Americans will not understand "jumper" used in the sence of "sweater".

Kagoul (English): A kagoul is a light waterproof jacket. Normally it can be folded and ziped into a small easily carried self-contained package. The word comes from the French "cagoule" (meaning much the same thing), which in turn comes from the Latin "cuculla", meaning "hood". Americans may call this a "wind breaker" or "poncho"--but these do not carry the sence that it can be folded up into a small carrying case.

Kit: Sports gear (rugby kit, football kit, etc.) which Americans call a team uniform. Also used to mean a military uniform. This was rferred to as a "kit bag"--a bag for soldierrs to carry their uniform and gear. Imprtalized in the song "A Long way to Tiperare"--"Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag".

Kneesocks (American): Socks worn pulled up to the knee or called "kneesocks" in America. The British will understand the term, but do not nornmally use it. In Britain they are called "turn-over-top" stockings. In recent year "long stockings" has also been used.

Knickers (American): Loose fitting shortened trousers gathered at the knee. Knickers was the shortened form of "knickerbocks". Almost always American just said knickers, although knickerbockers might be used in better class men's wear stores. Until the 1920s, American boys commonly worn knickers above the knee, but during the 1920s it became more common to wear them below the knne. Some European versions were wirn calf level.

Knickerbockers (English): This was the common English term for knickers (in the American sebce). They were alsp called plus-fours in both America and Britin, but this mean an escpecially full cut.

Knickers (English): The modern English usage of knickers is to describe women's underwear. The term was formerly used for boys' short trousers. Here we mean short pants and not knickers in the Ameruican sence which were called "knickerbockers". I believe thatknickers were used to describe shorts trough the 1940s. Our English readers can perhaps provide some insight on when the term stopped being used for short trousers. We note trade magazines such as Weldon's for example using "knickers" in the sence of short pants during the early 1920s.

Long stockings: These are the long above-the-knee stockings that were commonly worn with kneepants in the late 19th and early 20th century. This term was used in America and I think Britain as well, although I amn not sure. In the 1960s the British began to refer to kneesocks as long stockings, in part because inexpensive hosiery was often made without the added material for forming a cuff.

Macintosh (English): Raincoat also referred to as a "Mac".

Mufti (English): School term for one's regular clothes rather than the school uniform. A Mufti was an Islamic relogious advisor who would be consulted by government officials in applying relogious law. (The Turkish term is used somewaht differently.) The British military India began using the term for civilian dress because a Mufti was a civilian official.

Pants (American): Pants are loose fitting outer garments for me covering the lower part of the body and each leg separately. Includes both long and short pants. Actually the terminology for pants as pants-like garment are very complocated.

Pants (English): English term for underwear. American term: underpants. An English reader writes " Even "pants" could be a rude word at school - meaning boys underpants as opposed to girls knickers - and my gran always used to call them "trunks" - which for us were what you wore for swimming."

Panties (American): Short underpants for children and women. Also written as pantie and panty. It is an American term appearing about 1835-45. One of the many terms evolving from the term "pantaloons". Current American usage is for women's and girls' underwear, but not boys' underwear. The common comparable word in England is knickers.

Pinafore: A "pinafore apron" or simply "pinafore" is a type of apron worn by children and women. Also referred to as a "pinny". The basic term is the same in both American and British English. We note that in America the term pinafore is generally used in the sence of a child's apron-like garment. In Britian it can be used in the sence of an apron for adults as well. There is some confusion with the use of the term in connection with associated garments. In British English, "pinafore dress" corresponds to the American English term "jumper (dress)". Americans just say jumper, but it is understood that it is a dress. In British English "jumper" means a sweater. The British will understand the term "pullover" and "sweater", the Americans will not understand the term "jumper" meaning sweater. The term "pinafore apron" is also often applied to a frilly bib apron with shoulder straps that criss cross in the back and tie in a ribbon. Occasionally standard bib aprons are referred to as pinafore aprons, but this is a confusing and inappropriate use of the term.

Plus fours (American): Knickers made with extra material which made them blouse out more.

Plus fours (English): I believe that this is the general term for loose fitting shortened trousers gathered at the knee which were also referred to as knickerbockers. American term: knickers.

Plymsols (English): Earlier version of sneakers or tennis shoes for gym classes. Usually made in balck.

Sand shoes (English): Term for closed toe sandals used in the 1920s and 30s. No longer used. Never used in America.

Shorts: The term "shorts" is commonly used in America and Britain to mean short pants/trousers. In America, however, "shorts" also refers to underpants. An English reader in the 1960s recalls, "Short trousers weren't even referred to as shorts - just trousers as shorts were our trousers. It was only later in the 1970s when school uniform lists made me aware of the phrase "long trousers" or "short trousers". Also this may have been a London thing so maybe it was different in other regions. My aunt - who was originally from Scotland - used to refer to our shorts as "breeks" sometimes and she'd always call jeans (of which she didn't approve) "dungarees" (or more accurately "those terrible dungarees"). I never heared the term knickers used as short trousers. and it is interesting to hear the term was used in England. I have heared the term "pants" used in Manchester - which is of course familiar to you, "kecks" in Newcastle and "strides" in the East End of London - all as alternatives to trousers."

Sneakers (American): This is the American tern for canvas topped, rubber soled shoes. Tennis shoes is another common American term. These term is declining in popularity in America. There are many new terms sucjh as "kivks" and "athletic footwear". The British terms include "plymsols" and "trainers".

Suspenders: Suspenders in America are elastic straps to hold up pants. The British terms is pants. Americans also use the term suspender shorts meaning short pants with attached shoulder straps in the same material as the shorts. I am not sure what the British term is for these shorts, but I think the same term may be used even though "suspenders" have a different meaning in America and Britain. The term "suspenders" has a different meaning in England. A reader tells us that in Britain the term means, not braces for trousers, but hose supporters worn to keep up stockings (in the case of children and women) and socks (in the case of men).

Tights: The British use tights to describe both adult and children's hosiery. Americans use tights primarily to describe children's hosiery, and theatrical costume. Adult women's tights in America are "panty house". Unlike some Euroean and Asian countries, boys in American have not worn tights to any great extent.

Trainers (English): British term for sneakers or running shoes. Earlier version for gym class were called plymsols.

Trousers (American): Trousers are loose fitting outer garments for me covering the lower part of the body and each leg separately, but the term is much less commonly used in America than England. Only used for long trousers. Most Americans would use the term in connection with dressy trousers or those worn as part of a suit. Americans would more commonly say "pants".

Trousers (English): Trousers are loose fitting outer garments for me covering the lower part of the body and each leg separately. Includes both long and short trousers. American term: pants.

Turn-over-top stockings (English): Socks worn pulled up to the knee and then cuffed are called turn-over-top stockings in Britain. Americans will probably understand the term, but never use it. The common American term is "kneesocks". Since the 1960s, the term "long stockings" has been used in Britain. This was in part due to the fact that socks wre made to come just to knee length, without the added length to be able to form a cuff.

Turnups (English): The American term for trouser turnups is "cuffs".

Suspenders (American): American term for the straps or bands worn over the shoulder to hold up trousers. English term: Braces. Used in suspender shorts which are shorts and less commonly long pants that have attached suspenders in the same material as the shorts. I'm not sure what the English term for this is.

Vest (English): The garment worn under a boys' or a man's shirt. The American term is undershirt.

Vest (American): A vest is the garment worn under a jacket, but over a shirt. It is made with the same or contrasting material to make a "three-pirce suit". Since te 1960s vests have veen made as outfits with matching pants. These are worn to church or parties rather than a suit. The British will understand"vest" as meaning undershirt.

Waistcoat (English): British term for vest. Many Amricans will undestand "waistcoat", but raely use it--except for the upper crust who want to show their Britsih connections.

Wellingtons (English): The abbreviate form of Wellington boots or high rubber boots. They are more popularly known in England as "wellies"--often wth some affection. Although named after the Duke of Wellington, as children's wear they are more popularly assocaured with Christopher Robin of Winnie the Poo fame. The American term is rubber boots. There are also "galoshes", but these are styled differently.

The Commonwealth

We note that except for Canada, that British usage was commonplace throughout the British Dominions now called the Commonwealth. This only began to change significantly after World War II (1939-45) as a result of the increasing exposure to Americans and American media. As a result, American terms are now very common in Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand. We are less sure about South Africa and have no idea about India. Actual usage, however, varies greatly from country to country and is generally a varying, often eclectic blend of Amererican and British usage. A Canadian rreader tells us, "I have worked with people from India and South Africa and they use entirely British terminology for clothing items. West Indians use British terminology too. An Interesting note, Canadians use American terminology, but with British spelling."


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Created: September 28, 2001
Last updated: 3:04 AM 11/1/2008