Daily Archives: May 28, 2012


When I was a boy, I was a boy.

Not a girl. Which means I didn’t really know all the intricate insanities of women’s clothing. Adolescent boys know about bras and panties. That’s all. Oh, and wet T-shirts, and the usual outerwear. I was well into my adulthood before I knew, for instance, the difference between pumps and mules. And what the heck camisoles were.

I mean, really, what does the word camisole sound like? A canvas insole, some kind of camouflage, maybe something made of camel hair or, heck, for all I knew, some kind of sail a girl could unfurl so the wind could carry her away from the unwanted advances of a spotty-faced weakling… like me. What it did not sound like was any sort of soft, lacy thing that might be worn close to those chests I had spent so many cumulative hours inspecting sidelong.

I suppose, knowing what it refers to, you could hear the soft silk in the /s/, see and hear the mammaries in the m, get a whisper from the aspiration on the opening /k/ (and there are surely many aspirations that are mediated by camisoles), and end with that liquid /l/ that is like a touch of light fabric on skin. Sure, but that’s all post facto. It sounded more like military equipment to my young ears. Further evidence that girls are strange (if delightful and yet cruel) creatures deserving more of padded cells than padded undergarments.

But, then, the very idea was flummoxing. Why would anyone need another layer? Wot, there’s a bra, then a camisole, then a shirt, then a jacket, then… Well, now, of course, a married man, I know that some women may wear a half dozen layers at times (although my wife does not actually own any camisoles). “Warm” for dudes is the same as “freezing” for dudettes.

Still and all, if you have the idea that showing one’s underwear is rather outré, and a glimpse of a bit of lace is something you’re only supposed to get on the sly, the more recent trend towards having the tops of camisoles peeking out from behind outerwear tops can be a bit discomfiting. Is that proper lady in this formal situation really displaying her undergarment?

Well, is a camisole underwear or not?

Originally, the answer was easy: not. Originally, camisoles were actually jackets. Or, rather, originally camisole referred to a sleeved jacket or jersey worn by men – that was how it came to be in English in the earlier 1800s, from French, which took it from Provençal camisola, which in turn derived from Late Latin camisa “shirt” (from which, I am sure you have already guessed, we also get chemise).

Then it came to be “a loose jacket worn by women when dressed in negligée,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. By the latter 1800s, the name had transferred to an underbodice – worn, as the Random House Dictionary puts it, “to conceal the underwear.”

Um, so it’s not underwear then? But it’s worn under…

And worn over, yes. And, honestly, some things now sold as camisoles look just like spaghetti-strap tops or even tank tops (do a Google image search on camisole to see the variety available, or if you just want some pretext to look at models in their underwear – or their not-underwear). I’ve seen some young women go by with three sets of thin straps over their shoulders, one for the spaghetti-strap top, one for the camisole, one for the bra. So, now, would they wear just the camisole with nothing on top of it? Or is this some special kind of garment where part of it isn’t underwear and part of it is?

Well, fine. I’m not going to try to delve deeply into the intricacies of women’s clothing. That way madness lies.

Which reminds me: there is another use of camisole. It also means – often but not always in the fuller phrase camisole de force – a straitjacket.


I first encountered this word when watching some spelling bee or other on TV. It struck me as a rather pretentious word, the sort of word that doesn’t really seem to make any sense or have any place in the modern world other than as a word you don’t know, and in particular one you don’t know how to spell. Even to one literate in Latin roots it is a closed boudoir door, the inaudible whisper in a lady’s ear of her companion standing behind her.

It has no obvious roots; its morphology is rather opaque. Indeed, etymological sources are reduced to weak speculation: perhaps it’s from bel cece “beautiful chickpea” (or the French chiche beau); perhaps it’s from onomatopoeia for whispering or chattering. In the end, it is just there, and what are you going to do about it?

And what, pray tell, is a cicisbeo? Someone you don’t see these days, to start with. He’s more a creature of the 18th century, in Italy and France, among the nobility. A synonym is cavalier servente. He was the recognized gallant of a married lady.

This first puts me in mind of Paul Varjak, the charming young man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played so well by George Peppard in the movie. But he’s no cicisbeo: he’s the kept lover of a married woman, but he goes nowhere with her outside the apartment she has set up for him, and her husband doesn’t know about him. A cicisbeo went everywhere with his lady; he stood behind her chair and whispered in her ear; they would go to assorted entertainments together; they might also go behind closed doors in the boudoir together.

The intimate nature of the arrangement undoubtedly varied, as some cicisbei were not actually sexually attracted to women – but made excellent companions. Whatever the arrangement, it was socially acceptable; indeed, the husband would open himself to ridicule if he objected. The cicisbeo was there, and what could he do about it? But he was likely too busy with his mistress to object.

Given that sense, can you make the form of the word go together with it somehow? Is the /tʃitʃi/ like a sound of summoning, or whispering, or tongues clicking in interest, approbation, or condemnation? How about the buzz of the /zb/ – is that the buzz of a honey bee courting the flower? Can you see the act of saying /bɛo/ as like a kiss, a bacio (or baiser)? The word as a whole makes me think of a character from Happy Days: Chachi, played by Scott Baio.

And the lines, dots, and curls of the written word, sitting there like ruffled chest hair? You may see in the cici two ears and two i’s in service of the lady; perhaps you spot cis, which as a prefix would mean “to this side” (the converse of trans, “to the other side”), or in reverse sic (transit Gloria? how’s Monday for you?). Hopefully the beo doesn’t bring too much B.O. – better to call forth a wulf.

Stan Backs, who suggested this word, observes that “According to [Canadian finance minister] Jim Flaherty, there is no bad job.” Many guys would be inclined to say that cicisbeo sounds like nice work if you can get it. But we ought to remember that they could always be replaced, these cicisbei; cicisbeism may have been an institution, but the individual pretty boys could fall out of fashion, at which time – unless they found another lady to favour them – they would be spiantati: penniless cast-offs.