balaclava, cardigan, raglan

It’s cold outside. Storms are in the offing; power is on and off. Charge your flashights and pull out your warm clothes: your balaclava, your cardigan with the raglan sleeves… Go out to do war against the incessant snow and ice. It’s a fool’s errand in the guise of heroism: you know you will be defeated, you are surrounded on all sides, the snow will fall, the road will be covered again, but go you must. Yours not to make reply, yours not to reason why, yours just to do and… well, try.

Yes, a Canadian winter has that much in common with the Charge of the Light Brigade.

How much? Not just the glorified misguided heroic futility (though at least your version of heroism doesn’t involve killing people – somehow in civilian life they’ll put you in jail for that but in war they’ll give you a medal), not just charging the light, but wearing the balaclava, the cardigan, the raglan sleeves: all named because of that one battle on October 25, 1864, during the Crimean War.

What, after all, was the battle on that day named? Not the Charge of the Light Brigade; that suicide mission of cavalry with swords against entrenched guns, of olden chivalry against newer technology, done in error due to simple linguistic ambiguity, was just one part of it. It was the Battle of Balaclava. It was named after the town near Sevastopol where it happened; the name is thought to come from words meaning ‘catch fish’.

And who was the commander of the British forces? Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan. He was 66 at the time and had lost an arm in the Battle of Waterloo.

And who was the leader of the Charge of the Light Brigade, that charge made famous by a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (giving us lines such as “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die”)? James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, just turned 57.

These are not coincidences. All three items of clothing – balaclavas (also called Balaclava helmet or Balaclava cap), raglan sleeves, and cardigans – got their names because of that battle and that famous charge. The battle was lost by the British, as was the famous charge, but it was such a glorified example of heroism (mocked decades later by G.B. Shaw in his play Arms and the Man) that the place and those two key leaders came to give their names to emblematic items of clothing: the woollen head coverings worn by the soldiers (the weather was not warm), the style of sleeve preferred by the one-armed field marshal (with one piece of fabric right up to the collar, rather than with a seam at the shoulder), and the buttoned sweater worn by the cavalry commander.

The words don’t all have the same flavour, to be sure. Balaclava is the most exotic-sounding to Anglophone ears, and makes me think of balance, and claviers, and baklava, which I would much rather be inside eating than shovelling snow or killing people. Raglan has a clear echo of rag and Raggedy Ann but also, for me, of the song “My Lagan Love.” Cardigan makes me think of a Scotsman (since it’s a Scottish name, like Costigan and others similar) sending the same card again. All of them have at least one liquid (/l/ or /r/) and one velar stop (/k/ or /g/); only one has a vowel letter other than a, and two end in an.

And they have come to have different usages, frequencies of usage, and associations in modern times. The cardigan is by far the most spoken of, and is an item of apparel thought of as comfortable, domestic, bookish, not military or heroic. Raglan sleeves are, well, a style of sleeve, and the person most likely even to talk about a style of sleeve is probably your mother or someone you equally associate with domesticity.

But as to the balaclava, I will quote from the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place Names: “The town has given its name to the balaclava, a knitted woollen covering for the head and neck worn by the British against the cold and much favoured by modern criminals.” Ah, yes. This, at least, is keeping the crime in Crimea.

Now put yours on and go out into the valley of snow, with your shovel or your six-horsepower snow blower. Things could be worse. In fact, they probably will be soon.

4 responses to “balaclava, cardigan, raglan

  1. Daniel E. Trujillo

    James: This post led me to think of another artistic expression inspired by Lord Tennyson’s poem: Iron Maiden’s The Trooper. The song has a guitar arrangement that resembles the sound of charging horses. The lyrics underline the futility of the battle and of the loss of human lives. It is a great song, no doubt. It might be worth your time to check the lyrics for words like musket, which I am not sure you have already written about.

    I very much enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    Daniel E. Trujillo M. @VolcadoDePila ________________________________

    • In fact, that’s what started this post. I bought a bottle of beer made by Robinsons Brewery called Trooper, with Iron Maiden’s guy on the label and a bit of a capsule description on the back. I read a bit more about the battle and decided it would be a good multi-word tasting…

  2. Pingback: A Hodgepodge of Useful Bits & Pieces – Mid-January 2014 |

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