The Age of Empire

by Erin on August 18, 2008

Linda sent me a great link to this dress:


stylelist empire

It's not that the dress is so great, really; it's more about the description:


stylelist empire

In which the writer posits that there is a part of the body called "the empire," which is right under the bust, above the natural waist.

It would be easy to write this off as an error (which I guess it technically is, at this point) but it's more interesting to look at it as an example of lexical change. (Perhaps this belongs on my other blog?) There are lots of different ways that words can change, but I think this is an example of a folk-etymological change.

If you had never made the connection that "empire" in this context refers to an actual empire, it would be completely logical to assume that "empire" is a more genteel way to say "high-waisted" or "under bust," right? Folk etymologies come up with explanations that seem logical and that fit the facts. Which is a simpler explanation: that a silhouette is named after some long-dead French people, or that the name is based on the part of the body it emphasizes?

I'm not trying to say that this interpretation is right; I'm just trying to say that it's interesting … but I also wouldn't argue that a word must slavishly adhere to its etymological origins. Words change, after all. That's just how things are. I don't know if this usage is going to catch on, but I'm going to keep watching for it. (If you hate it, never fear: Nobody's going to force you to start referring to your "empire.")

I also look forward to finding out that the part of my body where the knee meets the calf is called "the capri," and that a little further down I have a "clamdigger."

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca August 18, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Don’t forget: two-three inches above your wrist bone, you have a “bracelet”; and somewhere on your humerus (between the greater tuberosity and the deltoid tuberosity, much closer to the former) is your “cap.” Is “pedalpusher” another name for the part of the anatomy usually known as a “clamdigger” (one from the Greek, one from the Latin)? Or is it actually distinct?

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lorrwill August 18, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Whoa! I have and empire. Dang! How do I cash in on it? Oh wait. It’s a body part, now? Color me disappointed.I beg to differ with this person because as a smaller on top, larger on bottom, 5’5″ tall person, I have never found the empire waist line flattering (ditto with the baby doll style). It simply makes the pear even more pear-like.

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Little Hunting Creek August 18, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Is my forearm a 3/4 now? and my ankle a crop, like a horse? Empire tops and dresses always made me feel like I looked pregant. This was charming when I was pregnant, but lost its charm for me afterwards.

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Cookie August 18, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Myself, I have a batwing. (Unsightly flab close to the armpit.) BUT I am working on it.Tying the Empire waistline to last week’s wedding theme, THIS was my dream wedding dress at age 14. (With gardenias at back of head, not visible from the front.)http://www.2neatmagazines.com/covers/1937cover/1937-Nov-8.jpg

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Jonquil August 18, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Keep your hands off my empire, bub!

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JuliaR August 18, 2008 at 1:17 pm

I am saving pix like this to show my niece, should she decide that getting a tattoo would be a good idea.

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ottermatic August 18, 2008 at 1:18 pm

The use of “empire” is interesting, but I’m more astounded at the this thin woman being in need of “slimming” tricks to disguise her “large bum.” Yeesh.

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Mars Tokyo August 18, 2008 at 1:18 pm

I’m glad you pointed that out. There is no such thing as an *empire* on the body. The empire style comes from the Napoleonic Empire around the turn of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. Dresses were styled with high waists falling just under the bust. I hate it when fashion gets dumbed down.

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Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 1:26 pm

I just want to know where my “Dolmans” are.probably right next to my “leg-o-muttons”Melanie

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Cookie August 18, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Has anyone here ever been teased for having a boatneck? It’s shattering.

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Jesse August 18, 2008 at 1:56 pm

(a) I don’t think that dress is even empire-waisted!(b) EM-pyre or ahm-PEER?

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Erin August 18, 2008 at 1:59 pm

(b) well, the New Oxford American Dictionary has “ahm-PEER”. Take that as you will. :-)

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Jonquil August 18, 2008 at 2:22 pm

How about “lingerie”? I always stammer, never sure how to handle it. Is the French pretentious? Is lahn-jeer-ay good enough?I tend to say “underwear”.Protect me from social shame!

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Marjie August 18, 2008 at 2:23 pm

This is the kind of verbiage I would leap on as peculiar, and my dearly beloved would then ponder my own peculiarity….More to the point, why would one wish to purchase a garment for which the description states that one has “larger hips and bum”?

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Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Bum?! How impolite is that. I guess we’re lucky they said “Empire” instead of “under the hooters”!Let’s just hope her bum doesn’t invade her empire!

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Maggie August 18, 2008 at 2:52 pm

The tat is unsightly…although at a recent wedding I attended the bride had 5 tats showing and another 4 (so she claimed) hidden under the gown somewhere. On to the empire part of the anatomy. if the writer had included the rest of the phrase as in “under the empire line bodice” it might not have been so, so, well I’m not exactly sure here. But for a point of clarification, clam diggers are just under the knee, and capris are between the knee and ankle…but don’t quote me on that.Maggie

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magpierat August 18, 2008 at 3:00 pm

Poor Beth with her enormous bum! If the author thinks that’s what a “larger” bum looks like, she must have to close her eyes in terror on the average British high street! At least ourgood friend Beth has a slender empire, to distract us from her vast derriere.

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Alexis August 18, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Oh, that’s funny!

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Jesse August 18, 2008 at 3:40 pm

(b) well, the New Oxford American Dictionary has “ahm-PEER”. Take that as you will. :-)I will take it as 100% confirmation that I am right whenever this argument comes up!!!!!

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Cookie August 18, 2008 at 3:42 pm

Does Beth know someone’s posting pics and descriptions of her bum on the Internet???

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Ju August 18, 2008 at 3:46 pm

Jesse, I’m glad you asked. The folks on What Not To Wear always say m-pir, and it took me many weeks of watching to realize that they meant “empire”. I didn’t realize that was a possible pronunciation.Merriam-Webster and American Heritage Dictionary each have both pronunciations, so I’m gonna stick with em-p(-)r.

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lorrwill August 18, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Hmm. Today I have an armscye princess. Two of em. Or two princesses. Crossing my appropriately concealed empire.And I hate my tat more than I hate this poor things.

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Judy August 18, 2008 at 5:41 pm

That’s one ugly dress! Maybe the sash should be tied around her head like a super crunchy hippie biker chick. That would go with her tat and draw onlooking eyes away from that billboard bum. Just kidding Beth.Where do you get your hair done?

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Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 6:10 pm

It’s all too J. Peterman for me.

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kagitsune August 18, 2008 at 6:22 pm

I love empire waists. They are the best silhouette for my own body that I’ve found so far. :3 I love making them in cute/interesting fabrics. ^^But that is an interesting note about how “empire” has come to be so linked with a dress silhouette that it might be considered as a part of the body in some circles. Makes you think.

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Cassie August 18, 2008 at 6:28 pm

You know, I’m shaped roughly like that, and no, no imperial ambitions. I do not need a dress that makes the hanger look like it’s pregnant. My best dresses have waists, because I have hips.I liked the description, though– it was very active. Not just “Pretty dress!” but “This dress does this, this, and this.” It felt very taking-charge-of-fashion.I don’t mind the tattoo.

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Kate August 18, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Im pear shaped with a small waist and an ahm-PEER (cant say it that way without laughing) waist is truly unflattering. I dont do those ab workouts to then cover said abs with a dress that makes me look preggers. They look fab on others, just not on me.Another comment about Stacy Clinton on What Not to Wear. They always say that the empire is the narrowest part of a womans body. Um, not on me. Not even kinda. I personally look best in a dress with a defined waist that hits at my actual natural waist.

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Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 8:20 pm

I am amazed to learn that a (reputable?) dictionary says that “ahm-PEER” is the preferred pronunication. “ahm-PEER” sounds pretentious and uneducated to my ears. My acquaintanace who says “ahm-PEER” also says “af-FLU-ence” instead of “AF-flu-ence.” Sigh. That pronunciation makes prosperity sounds like a disease.As it happens, I’ve made a few Empire dresses recently. Now that I’m thick around the middle, a natural-waist dress, which used to be so flattering, is embarrassingly revealing of the pudge. The high-waisted dresses are comfy through my midsection and can be fitted to minimize the excess bust.

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minnie August 18, 2008 at 8:34 pm

i also find that an empire waisted dress does nothing to flatter my pear shaped body. I look much better with a fitted bodice and full skirt

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scarabee August 18, 2008 at 9:28 pm

The problem with saying ‘ahm-PEER’ is that it leads to People On The Internet writing about their ‘umpire’ waisted dresses, which confused me a great deal until I realised they’d been watching too much Stacy and Clinton.However, I don’t see a problem in adopting an English pronunciation of words if it makes them easier to say for the average non-French speaker…

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wundermary August 18, 2008 at 9:56 pm

Saying the wrap falls at the empire just sounds ridiculous.I’ve always thought that the Capri is tight, just covers the knee and has a vent on the outside seam, the pedal pusher is mid-calf and a little looser and the clam digger is midcalf and baggy.

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Anonymous August 19, 2008 at 12:35 am

Hmm,this actually doesn’t seem like a typo. I’m pretty positive when they used “empire” they were referring to the empire line/cut and not a body part. It’s pretty commonly used among designers and developers.

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Jo August 19, 2008 at 5:29 am

I can actually see how this linguistic creep could happen. Fashion folks in the know shorthand “Empire-waist” to “Empire,” knowing that they’re talking about a dress design. Others hear them, pattern-match without all the information, and start using the term themselves. Frankly, “Empire” is easier to say than “underbust” or “high-waist.”

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Yvonne August 19, 2008 at 8:07 am

I don’t read this as people changing what “empire” is referring to (so that it’s about a part of the body instead of a historical period). I read it as a simple abbreviation or abridgement: as if the “line” in “empire line” is silent. In other words, “It cinches at the empire line.” It probably seems logical since in dressmaking it’s pretty common to say “waist” to mean “waistline” and “bust” for “bust line”.(In this I seem to be in agreement with Jo and Anon-at-12:35am.)Re pronunciation: empire is an English word (yes, with French origins) and deserves an anglicized pronunciation. [My New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives only one pronunciation: /'mp/ I've never heard anyone say anything different.] Why on earth would English-speaking dressmakers want to pronounce it “ahm-PEER”? My bet is that French-speaking dressmakers call the “empire line” something different altogether. Anyone able to comment?

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Jonquil August 19, 2008 at 8:22 am

Psst. Erin’s a lexicographer. She’s pretty well up on word origins.I think leg o’ mutton sleeves should come back.

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tea August 19, 2008 at 9:18 am

Gives a new shade of meaning to “The Empire Strike Back,” doesn’t it?

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Anonymous August 19, 2008 at 10:10 am

The origin of the phrase empire line is the fashion of the french empire ladies. The word empire is common to english and french. I have never heard it pronounced am-peer I wondered if that was an american lingual shift. I’d expect it to sound more like lumpeer in french (l’empire).Susan

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Kristen August 19, 2008 at 10:58 am

gah! how, exactly, is this dress flattering on her? so many girls and women are wearing empire waisted tops and dresses and seem only to succeed in looking pregnant (which, if you ARE, yay…). This woman seems to be just as curvy on top as she is on the bottom. So why wouldn’t a slightly lower-waisted 50′s style dress look excellent on her?

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lorrwill August 19, 2008 at 11:39 am

Oh and thanks to Power 90, I am working out to firm and tone everything from my choker to my maxi. I am especially looking forward to nice, firm daisy dukes, lean Bermudas and a flat bikini? Girdle? Hikini? Oh! And no more leg-o-muttons/batwings/dolmans that that jiggle like jello.

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bonnie-ann black August 19, 2008 at 11:47 am

erin, i think you’d enjoy a website (if you don’t already know it) called “The Eggcorn Database” http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/it's a great site with lots of examples *from actual written articles* of the idea of “folk” language. mistakes that make sense, i call it.

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Eirlys August 20, 2008 at 12:01 pm

What makes me laugh (just a little) is that Americans pronounce some French words in a French manner (such as “empire” (ahm-PEER) and “herb” (ERB) whereas the British (so much closer to France, at least geographically, yeah?) pronounce those in an anglicized way. Why should that be, I wonder?Makes sense that British anglicize “empire” not least because they had a pretty big one (remember the famous pink-tinged world map of Britannia’s dominions?). If anybody has any insight to offer on these pronunciation issues, do tell. Fascinating stuff.

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Ana August 20, 2008 at 2:13 pm

I once had a yoga teacher who would refer to our AHM-peer waists as a spot to manipulate in various ways, but he knew he was doing a funny thing with a clothing word. He was cute. A Texan. He also called our sticky mats “lovies.”

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anthrok8 August 20, 2008 at 4:04 pm

Speaking of Brit/ American choices of pronounciation: Americans the Italian “zuchinni” where British people refer to French “courgettes” and “aubergines.” Which I suppose makes sense given where our immigration history and food preferences come from. (But I am assuming, so there’s some folk etymology at work…)I have a tattoo on my cap, have had it for 16 years, and still love it. In case anyone’s niece is reading this and wants a second opinion.

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crypticpuzzler August 20, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Ah, batwings and dolmans…you could also call them kimonos. I’m a quilter (all straight lines!) and copy editor, and I love this blog.

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Susanna Fraser August 21, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Sigh. As a history geek specializing in the Napoleonic era, this usage makes me want to WEEP. I know, I know, language evolves, and most people are not going to love history in general and this era in particular the way I do. But still. Sic transit gloria mundi. And bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?::Susan stalks off to indulge in a fit of the linguistic sulks::

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Laura B August 24, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Those who never read Jane Austin are doomed to make odd comments in blogs.Napoleon and Josephine?Vanity Fair? No? My decollete is too capacious for this style period, but I can fantasize.:Laura swoons on her faux fainting chaise:

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