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How big is your empire?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 18, 2008 11:47 PM


Erin McKean is both lexicographer and sewing maven, and the two vocations blend seamlessly today at her blog A Dress a Day. McKean asks whether the empire waist -- that style that makes Jane Austen heroines look so fetching, and real people so pregnant -- is fostering the notion that the "empire" is a location on the body.

She quotes a dress description: "It cinches at the empire (the ideal spot for a wrap to fall)."

"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?"

(Actually, it might make sense to have a name for that under-the-bust circumference, since the bra people -- the ones who are always claiming that 7 or 8 or 9 out of 10 women wear the wrong size, though how the heck would they know? -- always instruct you to measure there first. They could say it more economically: "Your cup size depends on the difference between your empire and your bust.")

If the usage catches on, McKean says, "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.' "

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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