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Whole cloth

Q From an anonymous correspondent: Do you have any information on the meaning or origin of the term whole cloth?

A Literally, the phrase refers to a complete piece of cloth as it is first made, as opposed to one which has been cut up to make garments. It goes back at least to the fifteenth century in that sense. Down the years, it has been used in a variety of figurative senses, but in the early nineteenth century it began to be employed in the US in the way that we now know, of something that is wholly fabricated or a complete lie. The implication seems to be that a thing made from whole cloth has no previous history or associations, that it is created from a blank sheet in the same way that a total lie is invented.

Page created 1 Aug. 1998

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Last modified: 1 August 1998.