Another Worthy Candidate for Banning
Heard three times too many in one day by one lobbyist:
“Made out of whole cloth.”
Know the Enemy:
Notes by Ellen Rosen from alt.usage.english FAQ
The phrase “made out of whole cloth” (and variants) currently means “utterly without foundation in fact, completely fictitious.”
Merriam Webster gives only this sense for “whole cloth” and dates it to 1840. The phrase did not always have this connotation, however.
The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for “whole cloth” from 1433 on. Its first definition is “a piece of cloth of the full size as manufactured, as distinguished from a piece that may be cut off or out of it for a garment, etc.” This sense is still used by people who sew or quilt, who use “whole cloth” to mean “uncut fabric”.
The OED also gives several citations for the phrase “cut (or made) out of whole cloth.” The earliest citation is from 1579. These citations indicate that for roughly 300 years, the phrase was used to connote entirety, but not falsehood. An example from 1634: “The valiant Souldier … measureth out of the whole cloath his Honour with his sword”.
This positive sense of “whole cloth” persisted in England until at least the beginning of this century. A citation from 1905: “That Eton captain is cut out of whole cloth; no shoddy there”.
Before the Industrial Revolution, few people had ready access to whole cloth. Cotton had to be picked — or sheep sheared — the cotton or wool had to be washed and picked over; the material had to be spun into thread and the thread woven into cloth.
Cloth was therefore precious and frequently reused. A worn-out man’s shirt would be cut down to make a child’s shirt. The unworn parts of a woman’s skirt would be reused to make quilts, etc. Also, homespun fabric was not very comfortable to wear. Even after the Industrial Revolution, ready-made whole cloth was sufficiently expensive that many people could not afford to use new cloth for everything.
Therefore, to have a piece of clothing made out of whole cloth must have been very special, indeed: Something new, not something hand-me-down. Something that hadn’t been patched together from disparate, often unmatched pieces — maybe even something comfortable.
So describing something as being made from whole cloth would mean that it had never existed as a garment before, and that it was something special, something wondrous — one’s Sunday best, or better.
The meaning of the phrase “made out of whole cloth” appears to have begun to change in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. The OED labels the falsehood sense “U.S. colloquial or slang”, and provides a citation from 1843: “Isn’t this entire story … made out of whole cloth?”
The change of meaning may have arisen from deceptive trade practices. Charles Earle Funk suggests that 19th-century tailors advertising whole cloth may really have been using patched cloth or cloth that was falsely stretched to appear to be full-width.
Alternatively, the modern figurative meaning of “whole cloth” may depend on a lie’s having sprung whole, ex nihilo, having no connection with existing facts. All-newness distinguishes garments and lies made out of whole cloth.
This is a positive characteristic for clothes, but not for the average tissue of lies and deception.
(Editor’s Note: Here endth the lesson. Class dimissed.)
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