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Travelling on horseback in earlier centuries could be unpleasant in wet weather, with all that water and mud kicked up by the hooves. Nobody found a way to put mudguards on horses, but they did the next best thing by putting guards on the rider’s legs. (It was the same idea as the chaps of cowboys, except that the latter guarded against the thorns of the chaparral rather than mud.)

These gaiters or spatterdashes — an obvious but effective name — were of leather, tied around the legs below the knees, as Daniel Defoe has Robinson Crusoe describe: “Stockings and shoes I had none, but had made me a pair of somethings, I scarce knew what to call them, like buskins, to flap over my legs, and lace on either side like spatterdashes, but of a most barbarous shape, as indeed were all the rest of my clothes.” (Buskins were a kind of high-legged leather boots.)

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, people had started to abbreviate the word to spats; in sympathy with their abbreviated name these had become much shorter, fastening under the shoe but reaching little higher than the ankle. In this form — and always in sober grey, black or white — they became part of the uniform of the well-dressed city man, as Conan Doyle implies in the Sherlock Homes story The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge: “From his spats to his gold-rimmed spectacles he was a Conservative, a churchman, a good citizen, orthodox and conventional to the last degree.”

P G Wodehouse had great fun inventing stories featuring young men in spats (in 1936 he even gave a book that title). In Jill the Reckless of 1921, one named Freddie attempts to stop a man called Henry from poking a parrot with a stick:

“Just because you’ve got white spats,” proceeded Henry, on whose sensitive mind these adjuncts of the costume of the well-dressed man about town seemed to have made a deep and unfavourable impression, “you think you can come mucking around and messing abart and interfering and mucking around. This bird’s bit me in the finger, and ’ere’s the finger, if you don’t believe me — and I’m going to twist ’is ruddy neck, if all the perishers with white spats in London come messing abart and mucking around, so you take them white spats of yours ’ome and give ’em to the old woman to cook for your Sunday dinner!”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Oct. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-spa2.htm
Last modified: 8 October 2005.