I know when I first encountered this word: it was in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. I was in early twenties and auditioning around, trying vainly to get some acting work, and one of the stock audition pieces I was using was a comic monologue (well, it was intended to be comic) wherein the clownish character Launce is remonstrating with his dog. The end of the monologue goes thus:
Nay, I remember the
trick you served me when I took my leave of Madam
Silvia: did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I
do? when didst thou see me heave up my leg and make
water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? didst
thou ever see me do such a trick?
You can guess from that that a farthingale is something a woman wears that sits, or extends, below the knee; beyond that, it’s not obvious.
Certainly the form of the word itself is no great help. It looks like a name for a cheap bird (do I mean a cheep bird? well, it may cheep, but a farthing, being a quarter of a penny – farthing is related to fourth – was not much money even then). Or it could be a kind of craft beer, farthing ale – incidentally, farthingale is often misspelled (and misanalyzed) as farthing ale. But it has nothing to do with farthings or with ales, and the g is pronounced, so the last syllable is gale.
Not that it has anything to do with gales either, and I wouldn’t recommend wearing a farthingale in a gale, lest it become a sail or a yard sale (or an assailant). As to the opening fart, of course that’s not etymologically related – I won’t say a farthingale is a far thing from one (though that’s how the syllables divide), but, etymologically, hereby hangs quite a tale. (Whereby hangs a tail? Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I know of… Oh, wrong play.)
It is understandable if you think farthingale is related to martingale, or to nightingale, but in fact all three have deviated from their disparate origins towards a common pattern. Nightingale is the oldest of the three by centuries; it comes from night plus an old verb gale “sing” with an extra in stuck in probably for euphony. Martingale – which merits a word tasting note all its own, but not today – is from a French word for a resident of the southeastern French town of Martigues. (What is a martingale? Several things… as I said, it merits a note of its own.) It arrived in English in the 1500s.
Oh, and farthingale? It comes by way of French verdugalle from Spanish verdugado, which comes from verdugo, “stick”. So, yes, it’s a thing made of sticks, sort of. In fact, it’s one of those hoop arrangements that women used to wear to make their skirts stick way the heck out (more recently called hoop skirts – a farthingale is in particular a conical one). Talk about bearing fardels! They were usually made of whalebones sewn into a fabric matrix, which gives me the opportunity to note how the vocal gesture of saying farthingale is similar to the action of a sewing machine (say it several times, picturing your tongue as the needle and the fabric being at your lips). Not that they had sewing machines when farthingales were popular.
Chairs designed to accommodate them were called farthingale chairs, which you will find bothersomely often referred to as farthing ale chairs or farthing-ale chairs, which, as I’ve said, is both etymological and pronunciational reanalysis – folk etymology, as it’s often called.
But how do you get from verdugalle to farthingale? Seems like it would take jumping through some hoops, eh? Well, in fact, it’s more folk etymology (so there). But it didn’t seem to happen in one jump; the earliest English form of the word the OED has (from 1552) is verdynggale, which is a closer borrowing but with a prenasalization of the /g/. After that it was easy enough for it to be reanalyzed as farthingale, like nightingale but with a farthing (influence from martingale is possible, as that word was becoming current at the same time, but of course nightingale was even then the better-established word by far). Now, isn’t that a trick?