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Pronounced /ˈstæməl/Help with pronunciation

The origins of this word lie in the underclothes of self-flagellant or ascetic monks of medieval times. It evolved from stamin, for a coarse cloth made of worsted, at first used to make undergarments that seem to have been halfway to hair shirts in their purpose.

Stamin is the same word as stamen, which immediately makes us think of the male fertilising parts of flowers. In Latin a stamen was a warp thread in a loom. It was also the name for the thread that was spun by the Fates Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos at a person’s birth, on whose length depended his vital strength and so how long he would live (it is also the source of stamina, which is just the Latin plural of stamen).

Later on, stamin became the usual name for a kind of woollen or worsted cloth, used for outer garments as well as curtains and the like. It was particularly associated with Norfolk and the word was modified to tamin or tammy.

Stammel went its own way, though it remained a coarse woollen cloth, a type of linsey-woolsey. Stammel was usually dyed red with madder. For this reason, it was also used for the colour, which was considered inferior to scarlet. Red was thought to be a healthful colour, hence the belief almost to the present day that to wrap a weak chest in red flannel was an excellent preventative.

It was a lower-class cloth, an indication of poverty or inferior status. Thomas Middleton’s The World Tost At Tennis of 1620 has a character disparagingly note, “Yonder’s a knot of fine, sharp-needle-bearded gallants, but that they wear stammel cloaks methinks, instead of scarlet”. The Little French Lawyer, a play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, published a year earlier, includes the lines, “I’ll not quarrel with the gentleman / For wearing stammel breeches.”

The material was most often used for women’s petticoats; the connection with low-class female attire was so strong by the late eighteenth century that Francis Grose noted in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785 that it was slang for “A coarse brawny wench”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 09 Feb 2008