What do ‘dungarees’ mean to you? Crowdsourcing an answer from Twitter

What do ‘dungarees’ mean to you? Crowdsourcing an answer from Twitter

The OED has been drawing on Twitter as a source of quotation evidence for five years; in 2013 quotations from Twitter illustrating hashtag and tweet (as a verb) were included in new entries. Although our early use of the news and social networking service was restricted largely to vocabulary unique to Twitter or other social platforms, in the last couple of years OED lexicographers have come to regard Twitter as an important source for quotations showing a wide range of English words in examples of pithy, typical, and natural use, and we now have nearly 500 Twitter quotations in published entries, with more being added every update. It has been particularly useful in expanding our coverage of regional items from Britain and across the world over the past year or so, initially by providing suggestions for items we might investigate in response to tweeted appeals, but also by supplying evidence of ongoing use of otherwise difficult to find words and phrases.

In revising one entry for a recent update, though, one of our editors, Andrew Ball, decided to put Twitter to a different lexicographical use: he had a word to revise, and plenty of examples of it in use, but wanted to know how and in what senses the word was used across the English-speaking world.

What are ‘dungarees’?

The early history of the word dungaree(s) is fairly straightforward: initially, as a mass-noun, it refers to a heavy, hard-wearing fabric, typically blue in colour, and probably taking its name from the port city north of Mumbai now known as Dongri (originally Dongari Killa, or ‘hill fort’, the name of a fortification at the port) from which the cloth was first traded to the West around the turn of the seventeenth century.

A plural use of the word as a name for various garments originally made from dungaree (and later often made from another a heavy cotton fabric, especially blue denim) emerges in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Uniform trousers or overalls worn by sailors were first referred to as dungarees in this way, before the emergence of a more general use (first recorded in Australia) to denote any heavy work clothes, especially trousers, a couple of decades later. In later use, both these senses appear from available definitions and our own research to be markedly American; sailors in the US Navy wore a two-piece, blue cotton working uniform known as dungarees between 1913 and 1999, while on shore, the idea of ‘rough work clothes’ persisted, but became associated especially with blue denim jeans (as the stereotypical form of work clothes).

Dungarees sailors

Another plural use, developing from this general idea of ‘working clothes made from dungaree or similar cloth, emerges in British sources at the start of the 1930s. Specifically denoting a garment with a pair of trousers combined with an extra piece of cloth or bib covering the stomach and chest and held up by straps over the shoulders, this is the sense most familiar to me as a speaker of British English. What’s distinctive from earlier use is that, whether they’re worn by workers, or as a fashion (or anti-fashion) statement, or by small children, it’s the shape of the garment that this sense of the word conveys, not what they’re made of (although they are often made of denim) or what they’re worn for.

Where are different garments called ‘dungarees’?

Here are definitions for dungaree(s) from the New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English:

New Oxford American Dictionary entry for dungarees
Oxford Dictionary of English entry for dungarees

(What are usually referred to in British English as dungarees are known as bib overalls or simply overalls in American English.)

Complicating this picture is the fact that in OED’s files there was more recent evidence that the association with work clothes had been partly lost in the US too, with people using dungarees as synonymous with jeans, with all the possibilities for colour and fabric variation that the latter term now carries. So, how simple is the divide between British and U.S. (or wider North American) use? And how is the term used in other English-speaking regions? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary gives both senses, while Australian dictionaries give only the older, more general ‘work clothes’ sense.

One way we’d usually try to answer these questions, and to—hopefully—verify existing accounts of the word’s use and our own research, would be to use evidence from our digital corpora (massive databases of grammatically tagged and searchable texts). The numbers of examples of dungarees outside of Britain and the United States are not high, but they seem to refer to the British idea, contradicting, to a certain extent, the evidence of the non-US/British regional dictionaries. But, large corpora of international English tend to be drawn largely or exclusively from newspaper sources, and this might show use in fashion journalism that prefers a more specific, ‘technical’ vocabulary than that in widespread use in regional varieties of English.

Searching for images on the Internet is of limited help, because while companies like Google and Amazon have sites in countries around the world, they also make use of dictionary data to filter and enhance the search results they return, so what you see may simply be a reflection of the picture that we’ve already seen in definitions, and which we are attempting to corroborate, rather than a genuine and impartial corroboration of that picture.

What would be ideal in this situation would be the ability to ask a representative sample of people from a range of different countries what they understand by the word dungarees. A representative sample being hard to come by, Andrew thought it might be useful to ask Twitter users to help by taking part in a straw poll of international usage. So that’s what we did, using a simple question tied to five images of people wearing garments all known as dungarees (in the process we also seem to have assembled at least fifty percent of a new line up for the Village People:

As you can see, we received around 600 direct responses. These generally backed-up the account given in dictionaries, and proved that we were right to doubt the results from corpora in this instance. There was solid support in Britain and Ireland for the shape-based meaning (although some respondents doubted that the women’s fashion garment shown in picture D was really dungarees); in the States there were people who thought dungarees were work clothes, others who thought they were jeans, and others who didn’t really know the word; Canadian tweeters were split between the ‘bibbed trousers’ and ‘denim overalls or jeans worn for work’ uses, allowing us to refine our regional labelling for the latter sense:

OED entry for dungarees, senses 2b and 3

As well as giving OED lexicographers direct access to quotations showing more or less natural colloquial (and regional) uses of English, Twitter also looks set to provide us—when we feel we need it—with one means to check how (and how accurately) the conclusions of our research on printed texts and digital corpora map on to the expectations of people using the language across the world.

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