It was a very hot day, about 1 p.m., with no breeze, the “sick, white-hot sun slamming down from almost directly overhead. … The air was as stored, baked, stagnant as that of an attic room on a summer day. The deck and all of the metal surfaces were scalding to the feet and to the touch,” wrote Thomas Heggen in the 1946 novel “Mister Roberts,” a collection of short stories about the crew of a supply ship in the South Pacific in the waning weeks of World War II.
The gun crew of the forward three-inch battery were all on their feet, under the captain’s eye. “For the same reason all of them kept their dungaree shirts on and all of their shirts were sweated soaking wet.” The captain, as portrayed by James Cagney in the movie based on the book, was an unreasonable stickler for regulations and insisted the men wear their blue denim shirts. Ensign James Keith also “demanded that his messengers stand their watches in immaculate dungarees.”
It was the word “dungaree” that caught my attention. I hadn’t heard that word used since the 1960s, when I wore dungarees in elementary school. Dungarees, says the Merriam-Webster “Third New International Dictionary,” are “heavy cotton work clothes (as pants or overalls) made usually of blue dungaree.” The word comes from the singular dungaree, from Hindi dugri, a heavy, coarse, durable cotton twill woven from colored yarns, specifically blue denim. The “New International Dictionary,” copyright 1923, calls dungaree a “coarse kind of East Indian cotton stuff worn by the poorer classes and also used for tents, sails, etc.”
The earliest citation for dungaree in the “Oxford English Dictionary” comes from 1613, and a 1696 citation reads, “Dungaree is another sort of Calico which is coarse, but something whiter than the former, yet not so fine, but is much stronger than the Derribands.” (I don’t know what Derribands is.) A 1759 citation from London Magazine says, “A sail-cloth called Dungaree,” Edward E. Napier wrote in “Excursions in Southern Africa” in 1849, “blue dungaree trousers,” and English novelist William C. Russell wrote in 1890 in “My Shipmate Louise,” “clad in shirts and duck or dungaree breeches.”
The “Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang,” Volume I, mentions the Dungaree Navy, a Navy usage, of course, referring to crews of submarines and destroyers. The earliest citation is from 1917, and the 1918 book “Clear the Decks!” says, “Migg’s command in the ‘Dungaree Navy’ — (subs and torpedo boats) was his immediate reward for persistent energy and efficiency over an extended period of time.”
Somewhere along the way between my childhood and teen years the word dungaree fell out of favor, possibly through its association with an older generation, and by high school I was wearing jeans. So where did “jeans” come from? The “Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories” says jean is a term for durable twilled cotton, short for jean fustian, which first appeared in texts from the 16th century. That term comes from Fustian, from Medieval Latin fustaneum, a cotton or cotton and linen fabric; jean is the modern spelling of Jene or Gene, from Genes, the Middle French name of Genoa, Italy, where the fabric was made.
In the same article, Merriam-Webster explains that “denim” comes from fabric originally called serge de Nîmes made in de Nîmes, France, where textiles are an important industry. Serge is from the Latin adjective sericus, “of silk,” a durable twilled fabric. The Levi Strauss Web site in a long essay questions that etymology, but the argument is too long and convoluted to summarize here. Denim is defined as a firm, durable, twilled, usually cotton fabric woven with colored warp and white filling threads; and as denims — overalls or trousers usually of dark blue denim for work or rough use.
I was surprised to find that these words reach back centuries. I have long considered them 20th-century terms, with no basis for that assumption. I think I’ll start using the word dungarees again. Dungarees evokes memories of happy childhood days playing in the dirt, the fields near home and my grandparents’ yard in the country.
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