A Kangaroo and a Sweater

Cross a kangaroo with a sweater and what do you get? A wooly jumper!  🙂

Okay, you’ve probably heard that joke before!

Jumper is the British English word to describe what in American English is called a sweater.

Nowadays, American English speakers probably only use the (clothing-related) noun jumper to describe the (1) popular stretchy one-piece outfit for infants, (2) one-piece garments worn as protection over clothes, the wearer of which has to step into, or (3) a sleeveless dress worn by young girls over a long-sleeved shirt or blouse.

Many of us American English speakers (like my blog pals Curls and Q and yours truly), wondered about the origin of the British English word jumper when it means what we call a pullover sweater.  (Sweater seems obvious.  The garment is warm enough to make the wearer sweat or it could absorb sweat.  🙂  But jumper?)

Curiously, it probably comes from jump, meaning “short coat.” The jump was worn by sailors.  (It could also come from (obsolete) jup meaning “bodice,” or from (obsolete) French juppe or from Old French jupe.)

Jumper has described and continues to describe many items of clothing over the years and across continents.  It has meant, for example, a sleeveless piece of clothing worn as protection over another piece of clothing, such as a child’s “pinafore” (aka “pinny”) or a worker’s sleeveless smock or shirt.

There are other clothing related terms that differ in British English vs. American English.  I knew that waistcoat and sleeveless pullover in British English mean vest in American English.  But I only recently learned (thank you Lynnequist) that in British English, vest means undershirt.  (Ah hah!  That explains Britishwoman Hyacinth Bouquet’s irritation that Onslow wears only a vest.  I never understood why that upset her so!)

But to really confuse the sweater-jumper issue, South Africans would call a jumper or a sweater a jersey. Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands in the English Channel, and at one time sweaters made from their firmly spun wool were known as jerseys.

And of course there are the terms guernsey and gansy.   The knitters of the island of Guernsey developed specifically designed sweater that came to be known as guernseys.  Gansey is probably a variation of guernsey.  (If you’re interested, see the Short History of the Handknitted Gansey.)  Interestingly, however, according to Beth Brown-Reinsel’s Knitting Ganseys:

Seaman’s guernseys and jerseys were not so called because they came from the Channel Islands, but because their fabric had long been called guernsey or jersey before seamen took to wearing them (p. 5, emphasis  mine).

As noted by Brown-Reinsel, fisherman’s garments “have also been known as knit-frocks, fisher shirts, and fisher ganseys” (ibid).

To further muddy the linguistic waters about jumpers and sweaters, while skivy (or skivies) in American slang refers to men’s underwear, in Australia and New Zealand it is a type of sweater (Am-Eng) or jumper (Br-Eng).

What I haven’t answered is how and when sweater came to be used in the U.S. instead of jumper.  Europeans didn’t start settling the land “across the pond” until the late 16th century, and the 13 American colonies declared their independence from the British Crown in 1776.  I logically assume that Americans, given the country’s British- and European roots and connections, used the word jumper.  So how did this jumper-sweater split occur?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the early 19th century a sweater (from the verb to sweat) was “clothing worn to produce sweating and reduce weight” and by the late 19th century sweater was a “woolen vest or jersey, originally worn in rowing.

It is probably obvious from this photo why actress Lana Turner (1921-1995) became known as the “Sweater Girl” after her debut in the film “They Won’t Forget” (1937).

I hope I have not made any serious errors about the variations for clothing terms between British English and American English as spoken in several countries around the world.  If I have, please forgive me.  And, if I have overlooked any major (or fun!) ones, please tell me!

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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39 Responses to A Kangaroo and a Sweater

  1. Sarah Booker Lewis says:

    I always find the differences in the various versions of English fascinating. I’ve often had an argument with Americanfriends about the use of the word “gotten”. It has remained in use in the US but is old style English as we use “got”. “How can it be old when America is newer?” they argue. I argue for linguistic shift. The language developed separately after the 18the century and some trams stayed in use in the US but went out of use in the UK and vice versa, while new terms and words developed in both countries.

    Accentis another thing. Within my parents’ lifetimes great many regional accent in the UK have softened and changed. As we travel around more and communication improves accents are more uniform. Since the 80s there’s a marked increase in a rising inflection at the end of a sentence, too.

    Yes, I studied sociolinguistics at university. Loved it.

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  2. Thank you for reading my blog; I am happy you enjoyed the post! I guess our foremothers were in the back making pantaloons. 😦

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  3. nanacathy2 says:

    Loved the blog and all comments. I read somewhere and goodness knows where ,as I read far too much ,that the reason trousers (UK) are called pants in America is that pants is the shortened form of pantaloons which is what men used to wear when the pilgrim fathers set sail. which of course opens up another debate as to why we walk of pilgrim fathers where were the pilgrim mothers?

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  4. knittedfog says:

    Thanks for another interesting post. Here in the UK, a gansey refers to a cardigan – It’s a northern saying I think.

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  5. I enjoyed your blog and look forward to reading more! Oh, and ditto. 🙂

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  6. iknead2knit says:

    Thanks for reading

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  7. My head is spinning reading about the words are used so differently – and they’re all English! And I always thought New Zealanders and Australians used the same “English.” Was I wrong! Thanks for the wonderful explanation and examples!

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  8. Great post! I grew up in New Zealand and we used “jersey” which usually meant it was made out of wool or at least wool-like. Sweatshirt was sometimes used but only to refer to something that wasn’t wooly, and it was made out of “sweatshirt fabric” For example I had a trackpant and sweatshirt set that was made out of the same fabric and sometimes called the pants “sweatpants”
    When I moved to Australia I called my jersey just that and the girls at school looked at me funny and said it was a jumper. They called what I called a rugby shirt a rugby jersey.

    After ten years in Australia I am quite likely to sa “jumper” now, which got quite a reaction when I mentioned my dad’s jumper on an American based forum. That’s when I learned that they call a dress a jumper but it was fun until then.

    I learned the pants/trousers thing after an aussie friend mentioned putting on yesterays pants on a forum with a lot of Brits. That got some “how disgusting” until we cleared up that she was talking about her jeans.
    I grew up calling them knickers (for girls) or underpants or underwear for girls and boys. The thin sleevless thing that goes under your clothes is a singlet. Vests are outerwear and are sleevless.

    Another thing I notice is that in Australia they call what New Zealander’s call pantyhose stockings. To me stockings are individual legs, tights are tick pantyhose and leggings are ones without feet. Another one is Americans, I believe, call what we call suspenders, garters, and braces suspenders. I think they still call what we call garters. garters. The difference? When I wear my 15th century clothing I hold my stockings up with a garter that ties around my leg. When I wear my 1950s clothing I hold my stockings up with a suspender that suspends from a suspender belt and clips onto the top of my stocking.

    Another fun one, though nothing to do with clothing is a “toilet”. In New Zealand and Australia (and possibly the UK) a “bathroom” has a bath, and possibly a shower and a toilet and a sink. In the UK I’ve heard a “Showerroom” to refer to a room with a shower and possibly a toilet and a sink. A “toilet” is a room with just a toilet, or a toilet and a sink. A toilet also refers to the actual toilet. So the “public toilets” refers to the room which has rows of sinks and toilet cubicals. I’ve also seen a “parent’s restroom” in public places which have comfy chairs, microwaves, places to change baby and I assume toilets. It’s one I see a lot of Americans getting tripped up over. On one forum I’m a member of there was a link to an article posted where students of a public NZ school campaigned to have cameras put at the entrances of their toilets to stop the bullying that happened in them. Of course, they meant at the entrance to the whole room where the sinks are, not where they could see into the cubicles. But there were some horrified comments until we got that one sorted out!
    Talk about peoples divided by a common language and all that! 😀

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  9. Cheryl Marie says:

    Great Post – loved all the info! And for the record, I’ve never heard that joke before 🙂

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  10. The difference among the English spoke in UK, US, New Zealand and Australia can be a bit daunting. I was dating a man from New Zealand and met his parents for dinner when they were visiting. When offered another piece of pie, I said, “No thank you. I am stuffed.” He went white and his parents gasped in horror. Now how was I to know that that’s a colloquialism for “I’m pregnant” ????

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  11. Tony says:

    I loved reading this post, thank you! In Australia we’d call a sweater a jumper mostly, also a pullover but that seems more formal. Having said that, I have some Patons Australia pattern books that refer to sweaters. I would think of a vest as a sleeveless pullover (I don’t think I would ever refer to something as a sleeveless jumper). Vest for underwear sounds more English, I think I’d probably call that a singlet. I know pants can mean underwear, but that sounds a bit English to me too, and I refer to my trousers as pants.

    I do love how English people refer to anything a bit naff as “pants” and I’ve started using that too 🙂

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  12. I am guessing that folks in the UK see more US film/TV than US folks see UK film/TV. As a child, I saw a lot of BBC during summer vacations in Norway and for many years watched many BBC serials (Keeping Up Appearances, The Irish RM, Waiting for God, Are You Being Served etc.)! I just scanned the TV channels I have now (I don’t watch a lot of TV) – Graham Norton Show and Primeval. 🙂

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  13. Just from a British perspective… we would understand jumper, jersey or sweater to mean the same thing and would use any of them happily in conversation. A pullover, however, is generally (although not always) sleeveless and might be referred to as a tanktop, although this word is very 70s.
    For years I was confused about US sewing patterns that referred to jumpers but clearly meant pinafores, so you’ve cleared that one up for me.
    I think in the UK we more liberal with our use of vocabulary and US films and TV have certainly meant that lots of words are used commonly here now and understood… for example ‘pants’ can now be used to refer to trousers as well as underwear.
    Not clothes related, but my favourite mix-up is that in Britain we use the words flashlight and torch interchangeably, but it you tell an American you need a torch , they assume you want a burning brand to set fire to something!

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  14. I am glad you enjoyed reading it … and yes, we seem to share this addiction! 🙂

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  15. Does this mean I am not the only one addicted to etymologies? Hilarious post.

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  16. Wow – I learned so much from you! And laughed until I cried about “budgie smugglers.” 🙂 Is that budgie as in the bird or is that an Aussie slang for something else?

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  17. This was a fascinating read! May I add a comment about Australian English terms? (Yes I’m Aussie, though in Hong Kong at the moment, which provides plenty of linguistic entertainment)
    * We use ‘skivvy’ to mean a long-sleeved t-shirt with a high, close rolled neck – basically a turtle-neck without the drape. It is usually a winter-weight cotton or polycotton jersey fabric, meant to be worn under something else. Schools in areas where the winter is cold (relatively speaking) often have skivvies as the winter shirt, under a tunic/pinafore for girls, long trousers for boys.
    * Informal trousers are called slacks, especially for womens’ wear.
    * A sleeveless undershirt is called a singlet, and a girl’s or woman’s singlet is only a camisole if it has thin straps.
    * A vest is a sleeveless jumper (pullover), and cardigan is a button-up jumper.
    * A long-sleeved winter undershirt (for women at least) is called a spencer – and is now a very old-fashioned thing to admit to wearing!
    * A swimming costume is a ‘cossie’, ‘togs’ or ‘swimmers’, boys’ basic swimmers are called ‘speedos’ after the brand, or if you are being slightly rude they are called ‘budgie smugglers’.
    I hope that doesn’t make the confusion any worse! 🙂

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  18. I know – and confusing!!!

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  19. Curls & Q says:

    Thank you! I have wondered why the origin of jumper vs. sweater, just too lazy to look into it. These word differences make it so fun! 😎 Fun blog!

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  20. You’ll probably think of something right as you’re about to fall asleep!!

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  21. Thank you. I am glad you enjoy reading my blog! The first time I heard this joke I laughed loudly. 🙂

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  22. Thank you! I find it fascinating as well, and it’s great fun to research these sorts of things.

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  23. You have such a knack for teaching me things I never knew I wanted to know! This sort of linguistic stuff fascinates me.

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  24. Great post! I always learn something different when I visit you.

    Btw, I had never even heard that joke before, lol!

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  25. Pingback: Bells Top | Linda Marveng

  26. Annie Belle says:

    Yay etymology! Thanks for the educational post! Alas, I have nothing interesting to add…

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  27. I’m going to have to write this down! 🙂

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  28. ordinarygood says:

    Yep Mum was born in New Zealand and her parents were both born here. Mum and her Mum were great knitters. They ALWAYS had something on the needles and took their knitting wherever they went. My ancestry is English, Irish, Scottish.

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  29. Knickers are only for girls, but pants can be for both!

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  30. Getting more confused 🙂 … I thought “knickers” was “underpants” in British English?

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  31. Now I’m really confused! 🙂 I am going to have to find the root for “jerkin” now … how interesting! I will look deeper when I have more time, but the definition was easy: “1. close-fitting, hip-length, collarless jacket having no sleeves but often extended shoulders, belted and worn over a doublet by men especially in the 16th century. 2. A short, close-fitting, often sleeveless coat or jacket, usually of leather.” Was your mom from New Zealand and raised by New Zealanders?

    Your mom was right about snoods and cowls but I too have seen those terms used interchangeably!

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  32. Ahhh, your comment brought back memories! Growing up I heard “Cooyak” (for the then-popular TV show Kojak) and “Yerry Yensen” (the then-popular San Francisco-based news broadcaster Jerry Jenson). 🙂

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  33. Thank you, and thank you for reading my blog! I am glad you find it interesting. 🙂

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  34. Okay, I will have to take that back. 🙂 I always thought jumpers were so PRACTICAL when my daughter was young – for the very reasons you write. At nearly 6′ I guess I just don’t find jumpers a good choice for me. They have the risk of looking like maternity smocks. 🙂

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  35. domesticnews says:

    Let’s dig into “jumpers” being for young girls. 😦 I like jumpers and I’m nowhere near young. I’m looking to resurrect the jumper, along with my interest in vintage “house dresses”. A nice jumper would be pretty, warm in winter, practical, and comfortable. It could be a modification of an apron even! And flattering- that could be the tough part- both flattering and comfortable. Hmm- what do you think?

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  36. Patricia says:

    Oh my, another wonderful and interesting post!

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  37. Thank you for enlightening me! My Norwegian mother always used the term “jumper”, pronouncing it as “yomper” making my brother and I giggle. We preferred the more traditional “genser” which I would translate to “sweater”.

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  38. ordinarygood says:

    As a child growing up in New Zealand we all wore jerseys but men had sleeveless pullovers which now seems a bit confusing really. Jerseys or pullovers???? Jerseys had long sleeves and pullovers had none. As Mlle Michelle says in her comment we now use jumper-sweater-jersey interchangeably and sleeveless vests would be used to describe what once was a pullover for a man. My mother would used the word “jerkin” for a sleeveless knitted “vest” for a woman! She would also have said that a snood went on the head and a cowl went around the neck but I’ve seen those terms used interchangeably now..Confused???? Language and how it is used and how it changes is fascinating.

    Hoodies are all the rage here – either knitted or as part of a sweatshirt. Great post Karen.

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  39. The one I always tell my students to remember is the pants-trousers difference. In the UK, your pants are your underwear and always go underneath your trousers. I’m from New Zealand, and we interchangeably use jumper-sweater-jersey to refer to the one item of clothing. It’s a real linguistic mish-mash down there.

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