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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Word of the week: scarf

It wasn't till the 1800s that the knitted thing that keeps our necks and noses warm these wintry January days came to be called a “scarf” rather than a “muffler”. Originally, a scarf (escarpe in medieval French) was a kind of sling worn diagonally in which pilgrims carried the alms they begged on their way to a shrine. When the word came into English as “scarf” in the 1500s, it was used for a diagonal sash worn across the chest by military officers – now seen only decoratively in dress uniform but formerly a practical accessory for carrying things.
The Oxford English Dictionary has this to say about the plural:
"The original plural form scarfs has never gone out of use; but from the beginning of the 18th cent. the form scarves (on the analogy of halves, etc.) has been common, and in London commercial use it appeared to have become universal in the early 20th cent. No other noun of other than native origin had this change of f into v in the plural."
Personally I would only use scarves, but I'm curious to know what you would use. Let me know in the comments!


  1. "Scarves" only.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go scarf down some breakfast ...

  2. I'm with Scott - 'scarves' only. I was also going to mention a person 'scarfs' down which may warm you up if it's porridge, just as a scarf warms you up, but the two words are very different in meaning.

  3. Hi,

    I didn't know (among other things) about the existence of a regular plural for "scarf", but I was thinking there was a general principle that caused this switch (f to v) in passing to plurals. Or is it that (past) usage is left to decide ?

    On the other hand, I have often wondered why "scarpa" for Italian ... shoes ?


  4. I would only use "scarves" for the plural. I didn't know that there was a plural form "scarfs" until I read this post. Interesting.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.