Watch This Word Wander


This summer a friend of mine bought a new piece of clothing for wearing outside during the hot weather. Here is a picture.


This appealed to me because it was light and loose, not knit but woven, and probably as comfortable a garment as could be imagined for its purpose. So I looked it up online.

It was described as a “surplice.”

A surplice, I thought? This made no sense to me.

Every once in a while (okay, fairly often) I set myself to chasing down the derivation of some bit of arcana. Let me now share what I have learned about this word.


The Origin of the Surplice

This term combined two medieval Latin ones: super, for over and pellicia, for a fur garment. Together, they formed the word sourpleis, or surplice in English.

In the early days of Christianity, a surplice was a garment worn by priest over a fur garment.

Below is a picture of Martin Luther wearing a surplice.



Over the centuries, fur undergarments were replaced by black woven ones (cassocks), but the surplice name stuck. Surplices have been part of the ritual dress for priests, deacons, acolytes and others in various Christian ceremonies. Below are two liturgical people in traditional surplices.


Even today, if you look up the word “surplice” in a dictionary, you will find a definition like the following:

surplice: a loose, white piece of clothing that is worn by priests or singers at church services

The Encyclopedia Britannica agrees with this definition and includes a lot more historical background than is needed for this discussion.


Surplice Usage in Later Years

Alphabet/Google’s Ngram program now can track the use of a given word over time by scanning the more than 25 million books it has digitized in its Google Books project. (There are about 100 million texts yet to be scanned, and the plan is to scoop up those as well over time.)
Here is an overview of how often the word “surplice” was found in printed material between 1800 and 2010.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 2.19.36 PM.png
Two things interest me here.

— First is the steady decline of the word starting with the beginning of the 20th century. My guess is that Christians have become more secular, or at least, less likely to participate in religious rituals over time.

— Second is the uptick in the use of the word “surplice” starting around the turn of the millennium.


The New Surplice
As I mentioned earlier, I have always been a little slow and so did not learn until this summer that “surplice” had acquired a new meaning, one specific to the fashion industry.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary added a second, non-liturgical meaning for the word “surplice” several years ago. In this meaning, the word is an adjective:

surplice: a diagonally overlapping neckline or closing <a surplice collar> <surplice sweaters>

Here are some citations from modern women:

The adjective “Surplice” is correct for a top crossing over, April 2012

Surplice sweater in a Macy’s ad..this is a very flattering style, which adds
definition if you don’t dip in so much @ the waist, December 2013

“Beware of the surplice dress, especially after forty,” from
Orchids On Your Budget by Marjorie Hillis, January 2015

‘Surplice dress’ by Ralph Lauren…but it was form-fitting
with cap sleeves. It did go to the knee. April 2016

You see that two things happened here. First, the surplice garment became a women’s garment that had nothing in common with the religious version but was distinguished by a crossover front, as seen below.


Second, by this definition, Diane von Furstenberg dresses like the one below, popular since the 1970s, would qualify as “surplice dresses.” But these always have been called “wrap dresses.”

Off to the Races with Surplices

Let us just say that fashion people are not word people.

First, the definition of a surplice dress was expanded beyond the cross-over thing and expanded to include dresses that used to be described as “ruched,” like the one below.



Then the word “surplice” reverted from being an adjective to being a noun again. This is how we arrived this summer with the garment I mentioned at the opening of this post.

Finally, the word “surplice” came to encompass just about any dress or shirt that a woman might wear. Here are some recent fashions that are described as “surplices.”






Effectively, a word that used to describe a single, specific item of clothing now describes so many different types of clothing that it has no meaning at all.

What we have now is a surplus of surplices.

No wonder I can’t keep up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s