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I'm aware of the meaning of "scantily clad", the internet gives some good clues on that (Side question: Does it have erotic implications in itself?). However, what do the actual words mean ("clad" from "clothed"?), from which period is it, and why has it become a fixed expression?

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Did you look up "scant"? Did you look up "clad"? It's not a "fixed expression" so much as simply the most logical way to express a concept. – Hot Licks May 8 at 17:04

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"Scantily" is the adverb form of "scanty"

adj. scant·i·er, scant·i·est
1. Barely sufficient or adequate.
2. Insufficient, as in extent or degree.

"Clad" does indeed mean "clothed"

So someone "scantily clad" is "insufficient clothed". The phrase describes (typically but not always) young women wearing lingerie.

That is, typically young, typically women, typically lingerie.

I don't know the first citation of "scantily clad" but it has become a useful cliche in common use today.

It is generally risque, typically (but not always) erotic. It is often used to describe "glamour photography"

Glamour photography is a genre of photography whereby the subjects, usually female, are portrayed in a romantic or sexually alluring way. The subjects may be fully clothed or seminude, but glamour photography stops short of deliberately arousing the viewer and being hardcore pornography.

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Thanks, John! Intuitively, does that expression sound medieval? Or from a more recent (Victorian?) era? – GaspardMonge Jan 9 '11 at 14:44
@GaspardMonge - I suspect it's related to photography and thus is late 18th / early 19th century - but that is a complete guess. The wikipedia glamour photography article I cited above mentions "French postcards" and "pinups of the 1900s". Victorian sounds plausible. – John Satta Jan 9 '11 at 15:11
@GaspardMonge - oops - I meant to write 19th / 20th century in the comment above. Mea culpa – John Satta Jan 9 '11 at 19:14

The earliest matches for "scantily clad" that a Goggle Books search finds are from the late 1700s, and the first of these refers not to people's garments but to plant life in a barren landscape. From Johann Forster, ‎Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World (1778):

But as we advance to the South, and cross an immense ocean, in the midst of which we see some lonely birds, skimming the waves, and collecting an uncertain sustenance; we arrive at the South-end of America, and view a barren coast, inhabited by the last and most miserable of men, and but scantily clad with low and crooked shrubs: we find a number of vultures, eagles, and hawks, always hovering about, upon the watch for prey: and lastly we observe that the greatest part of the other birds live gregarious in a few spots; whilst the rocks are occupied by a race of seals, which in comparison with the rest of animals seem monstrous and misshapen.

Several instances from the early nineteenth century use the phrase in the same way, but the other three eighteenth-century matches involve people. From Robert Heron (translator), "The Idiot ; or Story of Xailoun," in Arabian Tales: Or, a Continuation of the Arabian Nights (1792):

He passed by a baker's door just as the bread was taken out of the oven, and was set out to cool in the tent. Its colour, form and smell moved his appetite. It was now winter ; and the day being cold, the heat from the oven was another inducement to him ; for he was scantily clad[.]

Coincidentally, the next instance of the phrase is also from Robert Heron, though I don't know whether this is the same person responsible for the translation of Arabian Tales. From Robert Heron, Observations Made in a Journey Through the Western Counties of Scotland in the Autumn of 1792 (1793):

Here and there [near Inverary] are farm-houses, not exhibiting indeed a very snug or comfortable aspect. Two or threes handsomer houses are seated in picturesque situations among the woods. The peasants seemed to be scantily clad ; and spoke only Gaelic.

From "The Waterman of Besons: A Moral Tale," in The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (January 1793):

Aleppo is a commercial city in the Levant ; and there I hoped soon to find some means of getting a passage to Europe. I was not deceived. But what I found there, that I did not expect, was my wife. The poor girl was a slave, and, with a crowd of others, was exposed to sale in the market of Aleppo, rather scantily clad, and with a veil over her eyes.

In any case, the first four instances of "scantily clad" in the Google Books database refer to a desert coastline, a poor man seeking employment, peasants in western Scotland, and a modest slave girl. Evidently, at that period, the expression was not especially closely associated with salacious ideas of near nudity.

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Playing with Ngram, it appears that "scantily clothed" was more popular than "scantily clad" up until about 1880. – Hot Licks May 8 at 19:55
The earliest Google Books match for "scantily clothed" is from Jessie and Her Friends: With the History of a Lost Purse, published by the (British) Religious Tract Society. In that book, the scantily clothed individuals are impoverished children living in a Kentish village. Some of the early 19th-century matches (as in the case of "scantily clad") include descriptions landscapes containing sparse vegetation. ... – Sven Yargs May 9 at 0:27
... On the other hand, the earliest match for "scantily dressed"—from Sanmuel Jackson, Gleanings in England (1803), uses the term to refer to skimpy clothing adopted as a fashion choice, albeit with the joking pretense that the clothing not worn goes to the poor to alleviate their lack of clothing. Two other examples from the early 1800s (one by Washington Irving) use "scantily dressed" similarly. ... – Sven Yargs May 9 at 0:36
... Neither "scantily clad" (through 1827) nor "scantily clothed" (through 1834) shows any similar instance of being applied to revealing clothing worn by choice by fashionable European ladies. I can't account for the difference in usage, although I hasten to add that the split isn't complete: One instance of "scantily dressed" (from 1825) refers not to fashionable ladies, but to the native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego (near Cape Horn). Also, "scantily dressed" is considerably less common than "scantily clad" and "scantily clothed) during the period 1750–1900. – Sven Yargs May 9 at 0:51
In my second comment above, "Sanmuel" should be "Samuel." – Sven Yargs May 10 at 5:06

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