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In the United States, a white sleeveless shirt is often referred to as a "wife-beater".

Typically I try to avoid using "wife-beater" due to its negative connotation. I've tried using a few different terms in the past, but each felt a bit too broad or generalized.

Is there a more appropriate term I can use in place of wifebeater here in the United States?

The aforementioned wifebeater

Note: This question is asking what alternative terminology can be used when referring to a "wife-beater". This question is not asking why the term is used or where it originated from. For that, see: What's the origin of "wife-beater" when used as a sleeveless shirt and why is it not frowned upon?


For those interested in how region affects the local terminology, I've included a Google Trends comparison for "undershirt, wife beater, singlets, and sleeveless shirt" below.

Google search trends

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 8 '17 at 22:09
  • The Google Trends data is somewhat misleading. Although I can edit the title to disambiguate, there's no easy way of separating out search results talking about clothing vs beer vs violent men. And if you add in the term which answers mention as correct in Indian and British English, vest, it completely dwarfs all of the other words, although in the USA (and Canada?) it means something different. (The annual cycle, with an uptick of 20% to 30% each winter, suggests that a good number of those mentions are undershirts rather than waistcoats). – Peter Taylor Jun 10 '17 at 9:50
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The shirt in the OP is not the best example of what people, at least originally, meant by "wifebeater".

Instead, "wifebeater" meant a finely ribbed, thin fabric, white, A-shirt, sold in multipacks as a men's undershirt like this.

For higher quality shirts like in the OP, say "tank top".

For a true "wifebeater" shirt, say "sleeveless undershirt". By "true" I mean:

enter image description here

See the 1998 article Teen Slang for Undershirts ("Wife-beaters") Causes Stir:

A "wife-beater"...is an old fashion, sleeveless undershirt... The "wife-beater" shirt isn't some nouveau tank top. It's the ribbed undershirt once worn only by granddads and Stanley Kowalski in A Street Car Named Desire

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 9 '17 at 23:29
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    Artifacts in the image suggest a high level of JPG compression -- "finely ribbed" is exactly the sort of detail that is lost during extreme JPG compression. I think the picture is of exactly the garment you describe. Notice how on the page you link, the ribs become visible only in the mouseover zoom. – Ben Voigt Jun 12 '17 at 2:38
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    I can't see any difference between the linked shirt and the one shown in the question. – Paulpro Jun 12 '17 at 4:47
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    @BenVoigt The wider bands defining the neck and arm openings of the OP shirt indicate a higher quality. I'm trying to say if it's something of the quality that you could wear it as outerwear, call it a "tank top", and if it is only reasonable for a man to wear it as an undershirt call it a "sleeveless undershirt". The article I cited specifically (racistly) mentions "white-trash" and the OP shirt is just a little too nice. – DavePhD Jun 12 '17 at 12:44
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I've always heard them referred to as tank tops, or tanks.

Wife-beater may be regional slang; I never heard the term used while growing up in California.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 8 '17 at 22:08
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I've always referred (and heard and read others referring) to them as A-shirts (as opposed to T-shirts). They're sold as A-shirts, too.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 8 '17 at 22:08
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Clearly it's a Semmit (if you're Scottish)

Dictionary of the Scots Language:

SEMMIT, n. Also sem(m)et, se(a)mit, semmad (Cai.). A man's (or ‡woman's) undershirt or vest, usu. of wool or flannel

[Orig. doubtful. Phs. orig. the same word as Eng. samite, a fine silk cloth, or a garment of the same, phs. worn as an undergarment and thence extended in meaning to any garment worn next to the skin, but the semantic development is not clear. O.Sc. has semat, of a Roman tunic, 1456. Semmet is found as a form of samite in 18th c. Sc. (see A. H. Dunlop Anent Old Edb. (1890) 38.)]

OED:

Semmit, n. Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈsɛmɪt/, U.S. /ˈsɛmət/, Scottish /ˈsɛmɪt/ Forms: ME semat, 15 semitte, 18 semmit, semmet.

Sc. An under-shirt or vest.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 13 '17 at 1:12
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These were undershirts. Not just sleeveless but no shoulders either. T-shirts were also used as undershirts but carried their own specific name.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • What do you mean by "were" here? – tchrist Jun 10 '17 at 15:33
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I would call it an undershirt, or a sleeveless undershirt if I needed to distinguish it from a regular undershirt. I too have mostly only heard of it as a "wife-beater" as well (I understand that's regional; east coast USA here) but I agree with you that that's a terrible term, both making light of violence against women and, I assume, a mockery of poor people known for stereotypically wearing it. Also, it's definitely a tank-top, although I agree that "tank-top" is a broader category that doesn't specifically define it.

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    One could get a bit more specific if "tank top" is too broad. For example, I might call the garment in the picture a white, U-neck cotton tank top. – J.R. Jun 8 '17 at 20:42
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"Tank-style undershirt" seems to work pretty well. Not only does it bring up the right images on google, but auto-complete even knew where I was going before I'd finished typing "under".

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    I agree that it describes them well, and "works well" for searching. But have you actually heard people bother to refer to them that way? – Drew Jun 8 '17 at 3:41
  • I was trying to stay away from anecdote, but since you ask..... Seriously, though, I'm not sure. I don't feel like I just made it up, but I have no distinct memory of a particular person saying this. It must have popped into my head for some reason, right? 🤷‍♀️ – G Tony Jacobs Jun 8 '17 at 3:46
  • I think it would occur to me too, if I were searching - as a way to distinguish this kind of undershirt from a T-shirt used as an undershirt. But I don't think I've ever heard anyone use that as an expression. I'm not sure what the OP is really looking for: a way to distinguish such a shirt or a name that people actually call it. – Drew Jun 8 '17 at 3:48
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    I guess I took OP's request to be for a term they could use for this shirt so that they would be generally understood without having to say "wife-beater". – G Tony Jacobs Jun 8 '17 at 12:10
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[…] stupid-looking, white sort of male person's conservative kind of middle-of-the-road cotton undergarment

As said by songwriter and musician Frank Zappa in the song Wet T-Shirt Nite (at 24:13) on the 1979 album Joe's Garage.

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    That's not exactly a "less controversial name" – Stevoisiak Jun 8 '17 at 5:34
  • Yeah, you might have to leave out the "stupid-looking" part. – sleblanc Jun 8 '17 at 5:36
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    I'm honestly not even sure whether it's racist and ideologically prejudiced or not. If so, then the "stupid looking" may be the least offensive part. – jpmc26 Jun 9 '17 at 8:24
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    This is probably the least offensive string of ~15 consecutive words on the entire album. Plus you get an upvote for quoting Zappa. – shoover Jun 9 '17 at 16:12

protected by tchrist Jun 8 '17 at 3:06

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