It seems to me that some Americans will say plaid where we will use tartan.

Whilst tartan refers to woollen cloth woven in one of several patterns of coloured checks and intersecting lines; plaid can refer to the same thing but, usually in the UK, it refers to a specific long piece of tartan worn over the shoulder as part of Highland dress.

Am I right in my belief that plaid is more often used by Americans to refer generally to the cloth? Are the two words used interchangeably? It would naturally be nice to receive a Scottish opinion on this.

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    I use plaid to refer to the multi-colored cross-striped pattern. I use tartan to refer to a plaid that is associated with a clan. – ScotM Dec 30 '14 at 0:03
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    Yes. Canada too. I have several plaid shirts (none of them wool), some of which I wear when chopping wood and some of which I wear to casual work meetings. I drape none of them over my shoulder. We use "tartan" to refer to the particular pattern of a Scottish clan. – Rusty Tuba Dec 30 '14 at 0:08
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    Well, you're definitely correct on the origin of plaid (you could have noted that it could also mean a blanket whether it was patterned or plain, but that's not very relevant). I think a lot of people are sure there's some difference between plaid and tartan as applied to patterns, but don't really have much of an idea of what it is (because there isn't really one) beyond "would a real Scotsman wear it?" which then falls foul of a literal "no real Scotsman fallacy". Not least some of the lighter tartans (such as my clan's) doesn't match some people's expectations. – Jon Hanna Dec 30 '14 at 1:22
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    @WS2 it has the historical substance of being something that in the 19th century was claimed to have had historical substance then… Knowing it's no older, and indeed never even bothering to wear your tartan, somehow doesn't completely immunise one against feeling miffed if someone says it doesn't "look like a real tartan, just a plaid". – Jon Hanna Dec 30 '14 at 14:58
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    @JonHanna Very aptly put. I lean toward the 'of-19th-century-creation' idea simply because I could never imagine Scottish hill tribes of earlier centuries having the time & resources of modern Premier League football teams, nor the support of Nike and Adidas to provide them each with their individually woven kilts in their clan colours. Life must have been much more about staying free from starvation. – WS2 Dec 30 '14 at 15:09
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I don't know if this helps at all. I'm Scottish and live in Scotland, I would only use the word plaid if referring to the length of tartan that a piper wears over his shoulder when in formal dress. Yes, tartan is registered to surnames but we also have tartans named after places.

  • Thanks, yours was the Scottish confirmation I had been waiting for since December last year! – WS2 Sep 16 '15 at 20:50

Depends on who you're talking to, and the context.
If you held up a swatch of polka-dot fabric and a swatch of tartan, most people in the US would identify one as polka-dot, and the other as plaid.

If you were speaking to someone who had a better than average knowledge of patterns, they could probably (and would probably) identify the different plaids as, say, buffalo, madras, gingham, burberry and tartan.

Most plaid fabric that resembles tartan would probably be called "tartan", whether or not it was associated with a specific clan and regardless of the garment.

  • Thanks for your answer. But if I understand you correctly you are saying that plaid is used as a more general term to include things which are not tartans. – WS2 Dec 30 '14 at 0:44
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    @WS2: I would say so, and I think that is what Oldbag is saying as well. – Drew Dec 30 '14 at 0:53
  • @Drew That is interesting because, as I mentioned in my OP, the word plaid originally had a very specific meaning as the garment worn across the shoulder in Highland dress. – WS2 Dec 30 '14 at 0:56
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    @WS2: Yes, I read that. Such patterns are very common in the US, but garments worn across the shoulder in Highland dress are quite uncommon in the US. ;-) That might explain the evolution, in part. Imagine abbreviating "a design similar to that of a Highlands plaid" to "plaid-like design" or "plaid". – Drew Dec 30 '14 at 1:02
  • @Drew But the OED does confirm that it can and has referred to the tartan cloth, since the 16th century. – WS2 Dec 30 '14 at 1:02

These are all likely more awesome answers than mine. I've actually wondered what the difference is many times. This has always been my semi~conclusive answer, but only taken from personal observations. I've noticed that tartans have wider designy lines than plaid. Personally, I prefer plaid. Just sayin' is all. That's neither here nor there. Even in the photo, the tartan example has wider lines between t'other lines.

I hope I've provided some useful insight on the the plaidtacular & tartantastic situation.enter image description here

  • Ahh, thanks. If you included the link it would better support your answer – Mari-Lou A Feb 6 at 17:06
  • Sorry. I messed up the first time. It's there now, just not above. – OneInAJillian Feb 6 at 17:06
  • That's the only reference I could find though, since my answer is based only on personal observations. More apologies. =1 – OneInAJillian Feb 6 at 17:08
  • I know, I know. Anecdotal evidence isn't particularly reliable. I keep hitting "enter"! Dammit! ;p – OneInAJillian Feb 6 at 17:10

protected by tchrist Mar 12 at 4:49

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