Gilets et camisoles

Last night at the French Conversation Group we were discussing various words for clothing in French. One word the seems to cover quite a few different types of clothing is gilet /ʒi.lɛ/, which on its own means a sleeveless jacket similar to a waistcoat (vest in American English), and apparently comes from the Maghrebi Arabic word jalikah (a type of jacket worn by Christian slaves in galleys) which comes from the Turkish word yelek (sleeveless jacket; wing feather) [from: Wikitionnaire, Wikitionary and].

Gilet also appears in:
– gilet pareballes = bulletproof jacket/vest; flak jacket (AmEng)
– gilet de sauvetage = life jacket (BrEng) / life preserver / Mae West (AmEng)
– gilet de peau / gilet de corps = vest (BrEng), undershirt (AmEng)
– gilet matelassé = body warmer
– aller pleurer dans le gilet de qqn = to cry on someone’s shoulder

Gilet /ʒile/ is also used in English to mean “a bodice shaped like, or in imitation of, a man’s waistcoat” [source].

In British English the word vest usually refers to a garment, usually sleeveless, worn under one’s shirt, or undershirt in American English. While in American English a vest is a sleeveless piece of clothing with buttons down the front worn over a shirt and under a suit jacket, or waistcoat in British English. So in British English a three-piece suit consists of a jacket, waistcoat and trousers, while in American English these garments are a jacket, vest and pants. I’m sure there are regional variations in these names, as well as in the types of garments they refer to.

Another word that came up was camisole /ka.mi.zɔl/, which in French means “une sorte de vêtement du matin, court, à manches, qui se porte sur la chemise” (a type of morning clothing, short, with sleeves, that is worn on the shirt), and comes from the Provencal word camisola, which comes from the Italian camisciola, a diminutive of camisa (shirt) [from: Wikitionnaire].

In English camisole /ˈkæmɪsəʊl/ can refer to:
– a type of jacket or jersey with sleeves;
– a loose jacket worn by women when dressed in negligée*;
– an underbodice, often embroidered and trimmed with lace;
– a strait-jacket**

* ‘in negligée‘ = dressed in informal or unceremonious attire. In French négligé (adj) means ‘slovenly, scruffy, untidy, unkempt, slipshod, frowzy, floppy’; and en tenue négligée means ‘in casual clothing’ [source].

** strait-jacket = camisole de force in French.

5 thoughts on “Gilets et camisoles

  1. I don’t understand why Occitan camisòla would come from an Italian word with a significantly different shape considering that camisa (chamisa in northern dialects) is the common Occitan counterpart of French chemise, and -òl(a) is a common Occitan diminutive ending.

  2. French etymological dictionaries seem to agree on that origin for camisole, normally invoking “par l’intermédiaire d’une forme dial. du nord de l’Italie” to account for the gulf between camiscola and camisòla. It seems to be because the French and Occitan forms are attested later, but I’m not convinced that the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch has this right; an application of Occam’s razor could probably eliminate an Italian step. Early French forms such as chemisole are also attested.

    Meanwhile camisiola (Latin diminutive of camisia, the ultimate origin for chemise etc.) is attested in British sources in the fifteenth century, but it is clear that modern English camisole is a later reborrowing from French.

    I think only the third of the four meanings of Camisole given here (=OED sense 2b) is really current.

    The etymology for gilet seems to be sound; the ending has been affixed on the basis of French models such as corset, mantelet; whereas other Romance borrowings of the Arabic word have no such remodelling (e.g. Spanish chaleco, Sicilian jileccu, etc.).

  3. A “life preserver” in American English is a ring-shaped flotation device. If you’re talking about the thing you wear, that’s a lifejacket (one or two words) over here too. And the only time I’ve heard one called a “Mae West” was in a British radio program.

  4. Re “camisole”, in modern French it no longer refers to the loose shirt/gilet garment but exclusively to a strait-jacket.
    E. g. Celui-là, il est mûr pour la camisole. = This one is ripe for the looney bin (literally, for the strait-jacket).
    And by the way, another meaning of “gilet” is a sort of cardigan or any waist-long opening on the front overgarment that isn’t a proper jacket (not tailored). For example, a mother could tell her child ready to go play outside on a nice but still chilly spring afternoon: Mets ton gilet, tu vas prendre froid = Put your cardie/jacket on or you’ll catch a cold.

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