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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: haberdasher

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


We have a curious word today, one of murky origins that has entirely different meanings in Britain and the United States, and which has largely fallen out of use here anyhow. (The Corpus of Contemporary American English has a mere sixty-five citations.)

In the United States, a haberdasher (pronounced HAB-ur-dash-ur) is a merchant selling men’s clothing or the merchant’s shop. In Britain it is a merchant selling notions—sewing needles, thimbles, buttons, ribbon, whatnot. A haberdasher was once a seller of hats, which developed into men’s clothing generally, while the notions sense split off.

Etymologists have generated several explanations of the word’s origins, but none has proved conclusive. One commonly advanced, that haberdasher comes from the Anglo-French hapertas, a kind of fabric, seems consistent with development into a vendor of small wares.

Example: From “Up-Close and ‘Down to the Ground,’ ” Christian Science Monitor, 1992: “Truman was measured in the press and by his peers for what he was not. And mostly he was not Franklin Roosevelt. He never went to college, had no chic hobbies, and failed as a haberdasher. Farmer, bank clerk, and country judge were the first entries on his resume.”

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