I've heard that the origin of the word "handkerchief" is:

  • hand (in the modern meaning),
  • ker (old "cover"),
  • chief (old "head").

In old French is couvrechief.

Why these changes were take place? Can you tell more about this?

  • 1
    All words in all languages change over time. Every single word in your question, and in my comment, is no longer what it used to be. Is your question why handkerchief is no exception, or are you after something more specific? Please clarify.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 22, 2014 at 13:57
  • "And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap" ("A Visit from Saint Nicholas," by Clement Clarke Moore). Feb 22, 2014 at 22:43

2 Answers 2


Some words are barely changed over the centuries, like 'mother'. Some words are mashups of mashups and this is one and 'handkerchief' is one.

Yes, as you noted it comes from 'hand' and 'kerchief', and 'kerchief' comes from Old French couvrechief for 'cover-head' ('chief' and 'cap' and eventually 'head' are related also back to Proto-Indoeuropean).

But that's backwards. Forwards, the current word is pronounced /'hæŋ-kɾ-tʃif/, which, as far as most English spelling goes with pronunciation, is fairly close. But in actual use, it has been shortened to 'hankie' /'hæŋ-kɪj/ and signifies something to blow your nose with.


The etymology that etymonline gives is very short and incomplete because it does not explain the semantic development from covering for the head to a piece of cloth you wear in your pocket for cleaning your nose.

As I see it the French couvre-chef meaning covering for the head was limited to a piece of cloth for the head. The French word was contracted to kerchief and understood as cloth/piece of cloth. So by adding hand- to kerchief it became a piece of cloth you wear in your pocket for cleaning your nose.

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