Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What’s In A Word?

Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire, Warner Brothers Films

In my new on-going, and unintentional series of The Strange and Wonderful In The Life Of An Author, allow me to present the Perils of Apparel.

When some cities in the New World, like Washington, DC were created, they were laid out in advance, in great contrast to such old world capitals like Paris which were grown up out of happenstance. We Americans, being new and modern, were pleased with our intelligent designs and sensible, orderly communities. The same, I fear, cannot be said about our language.

There can be no greater grab bag of randomness than the Americanized English language. Rules fail to be consistent, not even the attempts to patch problems with sing-a-long mnemonics. Living languages are messy, particularly one that adopts words and welcomes foreign phrases as readily as the Statue of Liberty invites immigrants.

Recently, while going over edits of my most recent novel, I discovered that my wife had changed my spelling of the word t-shirt, to tee shirt. In the world of an author such insignificance is the kickoff to an adventure of discovery.

I’d never seen the word tee shirt before. I stared at it puzzled. Seriously? Tee as in the tiny pedestal used in golfing? Is that where the name comes from? But golfers mostly wear polo shirts—which in itself is odd. Rugby has a shirt, boxing has shorts, and jockeys too. Why isn’t there a golf-shirt? Given all the money spent on the sport, and the desperate need for better fashions in that endeavor, someone should have invented one by now. The thing was, my general trivia sodden brain remembered that the modern undershirt had something to do with the US military in WWII, and I felt certain this “tee shirt” couldn’t be right.

Just as in days of old, when the ancients were presented with a life altering dilemma, I turned to the wisdom of the great oracle—today we know it as the Internet.

It turns out the first undershirt was created when some intrepid fashionista of the 19th century got it into his/her head to cut in half the traditional “union suit”—that onesie for men often seen in old westerns. 

 This created a top that could be tucked into the waistband of the bottom. Miners and stevedores adopted the garment that came with and without buttons. But as per my recollection the non-button style undershirt was issued by the US Navy as early as the Spanish American War. The inexpensive shirt grew in popularity in the depression as kid’s clothing and work wear. It wasn’t until WWII when so many men were exposed to it through their service, and in the fifties when Marlon Brando wore one in A Streetcar Named Desire, that the garment went from being an undershirt to that of outerwear.

But what about the name? I had assumed it was derived from some military jargon. The answer was far simpler.  The T stands for the shape of the shirt drawn from the stem of the body and the cross of the sleeves.

Given this I judged that tee shirt was incorrect, so was t-shirt. The correct usage had to be T-shirt as the letter shape defines the object. Armed with this knowledge I challenged my wife. She responded with the defense that the Kansas City Star uses tee shirt, and Reuters uses tee-shirt. Further investigation revealed that The Washington Post uses t-shirt, The New York Times uses T-shirt, and most dictionaries use T-shirt.

Such is the state of the English language. We are all subject to a feudal system of numerous warlords who write their own laws.

I’ve discovered that much of the “proper” usage of the English language is defined by authors, as grammarians—like lawyers—often cite various author’s preferences as precedence. Given this, and being an author, I realized that I held the potential authority to determine the future of the literary landscape. So I made the decision.

“It’s T-shirt,” I declared. Given the origin of the word nothing else made sense.

It was at this point my wife mischievously smirked and asked… “what about the wife beater?”

“I’ll go with tank top,” I replied.

“Okay so where did that term come from?”

Tank top?” My trivia inclined brain made the obvious connection. I recalled Donald Sutherland in Kelly’s Heroes, his dog tags slapping against his tank-topped chest. “Probably got the name because tank crews in WWII wore them.”

Donald Sutherland, Kelly's Heroes, MGM
“Good answer!” Robin replied, but then had to ruin it by doing research.

Tank top comes from the shirt being in the same design as the top of the swimming tank—the one piece bathing suit of the twenties. 

Really? Swimming tank? Oxymoron much?

And this my friends is how an author can lose an hour of editing trying to untangle the ball of kite string that is English.I am certain however that all of you are reassured to know the trouble authors go though in safe guarding the this sacred language that is English.

And people complain about the angle streets in DC.

(FYI: The swimming tank suit predates the military vehicles and refers to the suit of clothes one would wear while swimming in a tank of water, a tank being a large receptacle such as a pool or even a naturally occurring pond or lake.)


  1. There is a golf shirt but it is a derivative of the polo. The main difference between the two I believe involves fabric selection. Golf shirts use a synthetic fabric designed to wick moisture, provide UV protection and provide a full range of motion. This is versus the use of natural fibers in a traditional polo. Otherwise they are basically a polo to my knowledge.

  2. Came here to learn about writing; walked away with trivia that I can pull out at parties. Double bonus.

  3. I'll probably do a writing post next. Finally thought of something kinda new. Problem is I've already covered most of it. Well, that and I've been editing and proofing three books in three weeks with yesterday as the deadline. I heard there was a holiday or two, and the end of the world I missed. Ya know, you turn away for one second...

    1. The end of the world totally didn't live up to the hype.

  4. I'm glad I'm not the only one who can lose many hours to hunting down the origins of words on the internet :)

    It really is amazing how there can be so many "acceptable" ways of writing a word like T-shirt. Guess with these kinds of things, it comes down to what the book's publisher wants, or if self-published, a roll of the dice?