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The words "jacket" and "coat" are generally used interchangeably, to mean a garment that's heavier than a sweatshirt or a sweater and goes over them and other "tops," principally to keep the wearer warm and dry.

But clearly there's some sort of distinction, as you never hear about a "leather coat" or "fur jacket". So what's the difference?

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To me, coat generally implies thicker and warmer than jacket. Coats are for winter, jackets are for spring and fall. –  Craig W Mar 29 '13 at 1:02
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Did you try doing a quick Google search before making the assertion that we "never" hear about a fur jacket? Even when I put the expression in quotes, I got over 3,000,000 hits. Same with leather coat. I'll grant you that those expressions are not as common as their counterparts, but there are references out there. –  J.R. Mar 29 '13 at 2:16

1 Answer 1

Jacket referred to a suit jacket, while coat referred to an overcoat or great coat.

The adjectives have been dropped from each, in most instances. It remains customary, for men's wear and ladies fashion, for a jacket to refer to a shorter length garment than a coat. So one would wear a winter jacket, which might be slightly longer than hip length, whereas as a rain coat or winter coat would be full coverage, closer in length to one's knees.

As far as material, there is nothing uniquely associated with either. "Leather jacket" is more typical, but that is because of the origin as motorcycle jackets, where leather is recommended for safety purposes. Yet I have seen the description "leather coat" for women's wear. Even though "wool coat" is more common, there are "wool jackets" too.

Then there is sailor's garb, known interchangeably as a pea coat or pea jacket. Modern usage of the words "coat" and "jacket" is fluid, not uniquely wrong or right, but instead, context-dependent.

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There are idioms: straitjacket but *straitcoat; waistcoat but *waistjacket. But there are alway idioms. I'd say they're very close to identical, but the longer a jacket gets, the more it looks like a coat; hence trenchcoat but *trenchjacket; raincoat but ??rainjacket. –  John Lawler Mar 29 '13 at 2:44
    
@JohnLawler I actually have heard rainjacket, and the people saying it think the word unremarkable. They seem to use it for a light “shell” instead of for a full coat. –  tchrist Mar 29 '13 at 9:36
    
There's always outliers, especially for anything as individual and local as apparel and food. I'm familiar with this kind of stuff personally because I grew up in a place that was right on the Northern/Midlands isogloss bundle and we regularly heard and used lots of lexical variants in daily speech. My Aunt Loretta always called a frying pan a spider, for instance; that was the way she talked. I learned very young that everybody talks different, and language doesn't really have sharp edges unless you put them there on purpose and make everybody avoid them. –  John Lawler Mar 29 '13 at 15:01
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@JohnLawler My grandfather used the phrase "shirtwaist" to refer to a dress. I didn't know what he was talking about until I read some Victorian fiction years later. I still see waistcoat used in catalogs selling new clothing in the U.S.A. Not necessarily Brooks Brothers either! I haven't looked at one of their catalogs for awhile, I'm trying to think where I saw that! Anyway, I know clothing and catalogs because, well probably because I'm female, talk about such with my mother. I think your final comment captures these nuances of usage perfectly i.e. avoiding sharp edges of language. –  Feral Oink Apr 1 '13 at 9:00

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