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.
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!