Word Of The Week: November 21st, 2009

When I was younger I wore vests all the time. You could say I had a vested interest in them, but that’s the kind of pun that makes people laugh politely then stab you. What we in North America typically call a vest, though, is, in Britain, more commonly known as a waistcoat, even though any self-respecting coat should have sleeves, and vests also cover the upper torso. Not that calling a vest a vest makes much more sense. The word vest comes from the Latin vestis, which means “covering or garment , clothing; a blanket, carpet, tapestry”. That’s a lot of meanings to cram into a single word. It doesn’t surprise me that Rome fell if they weren’t able to tell clothes from tapestries–but that’s another story.

Supposedly vest as a verb, which becomes the suffix for words like divest and invest, comes from the Latin vestio, vestire, which means “to dress” or “to clothe”. I’m not so sure about that. There’s also the Latin word vester, which means “your” or “yours”. I wonder if the word vestis came from vester, or vice versa, because there’s clothing is so personal. And then there’s also the goddess Vesta, goddess of the home–also something extremely personal.

Getting back to waistcoats, though, the first use of the word vest in the American sense comes from Britain–at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which has this definition of vest:

A sleeveless garment of some length worn by men beneath the coat…A short garment worn beneath the coat or jacket as a usual part of male attire; a waistcoat.

And the first recorded use in print is from Samuel Pepys’s diary, in which he says,

The King hath yesterday, in Council, declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes… It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift.

While I was never a trend setter like King Charles II, I did buy most of the vests I wore in thrift stores.

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