'A sense of humour lends you poise, it gives you balance and it helps you to bend without breaking'

(HH Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda)

Menolialipistry; Lexical Semantics of Knitwear

After my post on Monday, Joanne commented in response to seeing the original garments of Mac2 and mentioned: "the gansey"... oh, there's a thing now - my Premium Grammarly just does not recognise that word. What does it make of "guernsey"? ... yup, that passed muster. Interesting. I wasn't expecting that as I started typing!

When I responded to Joanne, it was thusly:

Now, that response reflected my ingrained learning. I grew up with certain words in relation to knitwear that, I discovered, were not necessarily used in the same context throughout the UK, never mind the world. What is more, other words had to be accommodated.

Sweater, jumper, jersey, pullover... then my idea of a 'polo neck' was someone else's 'turtleneck'. I even discovered that cardigans might sometimes be called 'vests' - which to me is a cotton undergarment. Whatever. I do know that 'jersey' originated from the channel island of that name. In the middle ages when wool was the equivalent of oil for making moolah, that island excelled in both its knitting yarn and fabric yardage. It tends to be finer, tighter material and generally does not have fancy patterning.

The island of Guernsey, on the other hand, produced heavier wool and its yarn was used for cable-knits. Lanolin was left to some degree in the yarn as a natural weather-guard. Confusingly, much of the Guernsey yarn and jumper production was done on Jersey. Anyway, due to trade extending widely by sea, the 'guernsey' jumper became synonymous with being at sea, or at least coastal. These days, jerseys are considered to be machine-knitted garments while the guernseys are, almost always, hand-knitted.

The thing is, though, communities all over the coastlines of the East Atlantic and the North Sea were producing their versions of heavy-knit jumpers to protect sailors and farmers. The cable-style knitting was adopted because of its hardiness. At the height of the 'silver darlings' (herring) fishing era, the women who were experienced at processing the fish would travel from port to port up and down the coastline. When not gutting fish, they were knitting. Patterns tended not to be written but learned from elder to younger. Not all women, either. A lot of the sailors themselves knitted.

You can own one!!! Click HERE.
What about this slightly problematic word, though? Until thinking about this fully during the week, I had accepted the given knowledge that guernseys were called that because of their origin and that 'gansey' was a corruption of that word.

SO... (d-d-d-dduuuuuh)... I have learned in my researches that the Norwegian word for these fisherman jumpers is 'ganser'. Here's the real kicker, though - and I am astounded that it took till now for me to discover this (or was it lost in the menosoup???) - the Gaelic word for a jumper is 'geansaidh'. This would be pronounced, you will not be surprised to learn, as 'gansey'! That is to say - the words did not exist in those languages for the jumpers being produced, so they were called by the nearest approximation of the sound for the place of origin. Ganseys, therefore, ARE guernseys. Including those produced on the isle of Aran. In strictest terms, arans can only be called that if the wool being used is produced from sheep grown there. The patterns are actually just the adapted guernsey style.

The other Scandi-ports took on the knitting later, but the words in Swedish, Danish, Dutch all reflect more literal translations as 'fisherman's jumper', (fiskarbygel, fiskerjumper, visserstrui).

Here ends my little introspection regarding the semantics of knitwear! Whatever you choose to call yours, I think you will agree, that the traditional cable patterns are quite delightful to the eye.



  1. Oh YaYa it is so amazing how English words for the same thing can have so many names.
    So I must ask...do you own any mock turtlenecks? LOL My neck is kinda short. Real turtlenecks that fold over several times make me feel like I'm choking.
    Hugs HiC

  2. Very interesting lesson on words:) Now you have Mom wanting to do some crocheting too - oh wait, that won't be happening for a good while.

    Woos, Lightning and Timber

  3. That is a beautiful pattern, Yam. I'm sorry I no longer have any inclination to take on such a project.
    In the same way smart people devoted themselves to collecting folk songs way back at the turn of the last century, lest they be lost to the knowledge of men, women, mostly, set about collecting the patterns and stories of sweaters. The last Guernsey I knit was from a book by Gladys Thompson. Most fascinating were the stories recited by fishermen and wives.

    1. Hari OM
      Oh yes, there is real lore that goes with this style of knit/crochet! Whenever I see a museum in our coastal towns, I am sure to visit and particularly the exhibits about knotting and knitting... Thanks for being the one to prompt this post today! Yxx

  4. It interesting what terms and words I learn though blogger. I could call that a pull over top.

  5. I noticed that my boss (for one more week!) who is from Yorkshire and a keen yachtswoman, refers to Ganseys rather than Guernseys.
    Cheers, Gail.

  6. fab... soon 75 pounds will leave our dad's wallet, hahahahaha... do you know that we have such a factory here too? armorlux... it's cool too :O)

  7. The sweater is just gorgeous and one that you have to closely follow the pattern if you wanted to knit your own.

  8. they are all called sweaters to me, that is a lot of words and all the same and all different. I do know they first time someone from the UK said they bought a jumper, I questioned that because to me a jumper is a sleevless dress that is worn over a blouse. I found that jumper also means sweater.. too funny and the first time a blogger said she bought her treasrure at a boot sale, I emailed and said what is a boot sale and was amazed that it is what we call the trunk of a car.

  9. That was an interesting lesson in the origin of that word. It is funny how the same word can have different meanings depending on where you are in the world. One of my favorites is your use of "torch" for our "flashlight".

  10. Being a knitter I am fascinated by this wonderful post ~ thanks ^_^

    Happy Moments to You,
    A ShutterBug Explores,
    aka (A Creative Harbor)

  11. Well I learned a whole lot of new-to-me terms today. I'm not a knitter so don't really expect to have a knitter's vocabulary, but "sweater" pretty much covers the breadth of things for me in that particular wearable category. :-)

  12. An interesting piece of research!
    Language is really interesting!

  13. And now another wrinkle on the brain. namaste, janice xx


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