I'm originally from Wales, now living in the USA, and as the cold weather is approaching I'm determined, this year, to start using the word sweater to describe the item of clothing I'm wearing, as opposed to that which comes much more naturally to me: jumper. It'll save a lot of laughter at my expense if I can manage that.

In the USA, a jumper is a shoulder-to-thigh girl's dress, whereas in the UK a jumper is a knitted garment worn over a shirt or tee by either sex. This question has more detailed descriptions.

My question is, how did these meanings for 'jumper' evolve so differently? Was there a point when they both referred to the same garment, or do they have two completely separate histories?

  • To me, commuting by train and Tube to work in London, jumper has a different meaning altogether :-( I'm more likely to use jersey for the woollen garment you describe. – Andrew Leach Oct 24 '12 at 15:49
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    @AndrewLeach I had my share of delays on the Northern Line too, but jumper for clothing was so ingrained from childhood it's still the dominant meaning in my mind. I imagine there exists regional variance between jumper/pullover/jersey within the UK. – Ina Oct 24 '12 at 15:54
  • The Wiki link you provide solves half the riddle (i.e., it explains why the short sleeveless dress is called a "jumper"). So it's only the other part that needs demystifying. – J.R. Oct 24 '12 at 16:33
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    @horatio I'd probably use that definition for jersey too, but in my case that's because growing up in Wales I only heard jersey in the context of rugby jersey (to mean the item of clothing worn by a rugby player). – Ina Oct 24 '12 at 18:19
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    @AndrewLeach, horatio; The OED says jersey was originally the name of a fabric, a fine-weave worsted, famously knitted on the island of Jersey. It was a short step from that to items made out of it (like rugby shirts, or a close-fitting sleeveless seamans jacket), but unfortunately BrEng seems to have transferred the word on to any woollen sweater (which would more logically be a guernsey) and AmEng to any close-fitting shirt with short or no sleeves. Confusion is thus inevitable: why can't English-speakers leave the language to us experts? – TimLymington Oct 25 '12 at 14:04

While the because-they-can-be-jumped-into theory put forward by the WP entry for "jumper dress" is very believable, there are a couple of other sources on the net which do not subscribe to it. Firstly, etymonline's entry for jumper reads thusly:

The word meaning "sleeveless dress" (1853) apparently is from mid-17c. jump "short coat," also "woman's under bodice," of uncertain origin, perhaps from Fr. jupe "skirt" (see jupe). Meaning "sleeveless dress worn over a blouse" first recorded American English 1939.

The linked entry for jupe reads as below:

late 13c., "men's loose jacket," from O.Fr. jupe, from Arabic jubbah "loose outer garment. As a woman's bodice, from 1810.

World Wide Words sheds a little light to this odd evolution:

Jumper seems to have appeared about the middle of the nineteenth century, originally for what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “A kind of loose outer jacket or shirt reaching to the hips”, in other words what I would call a fisherman’s smock. The origin has nothing to do with the verb to jump, but comes from the dialect jump or jup, meaning a man’s short coat or a woman’s under-bodice or tunic. This may derive in turn from the French juppe, a petticoat (now in modern French, jupe, “skirt”), which ultimately derived from the Arabic jubba, a loose outer garment.

The word has evolved differently in Britain and the US; British usage has moved towards a garment that is specifically woollen, the US towards any upper-body garment for women.

This topic has also been covered on word-detective.com albeit with less clarity.


The OED gives jumper from 1853 (sense 1) meaning a loose outer jacket reaching to the hips made of canvas or coarse linen. This was worn by sailors and truckmen, and is also used to describe any similar garment such as the Inuit hooded fur jacket:

Elisha Kent Kane · The United States Grinnell expedition in search of Sir John Franklin · New ed., 1857: A ‘jumper’ or close jacket, slipping on like a shirt, and hooded like the cowl of a Franciscan monk.

The more familiar woollen garment, or jersey (sense 3a) is from 1908, but is also a "loose-fitting blouse worn over a skirt", which can be seen in this 1930 quote:

Some five years ago the fashion-mongers gave the name of jumper to the knitted blouses ladies had been wearing under the name of sports coats.

An alternative jumper, or jumper dress (sense 3b), is US and from 1967:

Wear as a jumper over blouses.

So perhaps 3b followed on fairly naturally from 3a, but the length of the garment changed.

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    I've accepted @coleopterist's answer but this was definitely a joint effort so thanks to you too Hugo – Ina Oct 25 '12 at 14:10

protected by tchrist Jan 3 '15 at 22:56

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