Imagine speech as a continuous stream of variegated colours flowing past uninterrupted, one sound into another. Now imagine written (or printed) language as a bunch of pieces of fabric of individual colours sewn together in an attempt to approximate the flow of colour that you hear from the spoken.

Yes, the written word is a quilt, a fabric mosaic approximation of reality sewn together from bits. And you are the sewer.

Or should I say the sewist.

Sewist? That’s not a word you will find in a dictionary. No, for a long time the standard agentive suffix for deriving nouns from verbs was er: doer, thinker, walker, worker… a joke my brother came up with is that since I live, and I am (infinitive be), I must be a liver and a beer. But this derivation becomes a problem with someone who sews.

The issue is that the verb spelled sew represents a word now said /so/. This is illustrated by the pun sew-and-sew referring to someone who sews (it only works if you know the derogatory epithet so-and-so). So what would be written soer (itself a little problematic) if the word were spelled so (obviously also an ambiguity risk) is instead spelled sewer, which happens to be the same as the word for a cloaca. An underground gutter. An artificial watercourse for drainage.

So aren’t we lucky that the suffix ist has become a fadfix? It’s the hot new agentive! Word quilters take note: no need to have those bland er panels when you can add a bit of spice with ist. And, in some cases, avoid an unpleasant ambiguity.

Because really, why have two words spelled the same way that have different sounds and meanings, especially if one of them refers to something unpleasant? And especially if you could use a different form for one of them?

We can’t use a different form for sewer meaning artificial water channel; it’s not formed with sew plus er – in fact, it’s a digested-and-excreted form related to Latin exaquatorium. But sew plus er meaning ‘someone who sews’? Why not use something clearer?

Sewist is, in fact, as Jim Taylor has told me, a current term in the world of sewing. It’s a new twist, a bit of a swizzle in the drink. It may annoy those people who prefer the old established forms, problematic though they may be. Such people tend to cover for their mental inflexibility with invective against the intellects of the more practical and forward-thinking people who would dare pour troublesome old forms in the sewer.

Think of sewist as a new patch on a problem, a deft bit of sewing that takes a little different fabric to sew a new representation together. Expect to see it in dictionaries before too long; eventually it will be the standard term, simply for better communication. Which is, after all, what language is really for. Not just needling.

13 responses to “sewist

  1. I much prefer ‘sewist’ to the older, gender specific ‘seamstress.’ Of course, we could go with ‘seamster,’ much better than ‘sewer,’ but somehow not quite as serious sounding (more like prankster and gangster) as ‘sewist.’

  2. Darn, Annie beat me to it. I came here to say:
    I wonder if the seamster’s union would have anything to say about this.

  3. The word used in the theater is ‘stitcher’. Problem solved.

  4. Odd that you didn’t mention the oral ambiguity problem vis-a-vis the homophone “sower”, one who scatters seeds. That, to me, is the primary reason for seeking a replacement for “sewer”.

    “Sewist” might be useful, but to me it sounds more like an ADVOCATE of sewing (not necessarily a practitioner). Particularly among quilters, it seem that many practitioners are indeed advocates as well; quilters (quiltists?) form a dedicated (close-knit) “block” , “bordering” on the fanatical (in terms of work-hours expended relative to the utility of the product.)

    On the other hand, “sewist” is consistent with artist, cyclist, motorist, essayist, etc.

    With the disappearance of the American textile industry, and the massive influx of imported sewn goods produced cheaply overseas by underpaid labor, it really doesn’t make economic sense for anyone in America to sew for utility, so it becomes more a matter of hobby or art. A generation ago, sewing was a necessity for those of us who could not afford “store-bought” clothes. But my wife sewed both out of necessity and for art; for example, a few times she made boy-girl twins matching outfits, which could not be had store-bought for any price.

    So I can easily imagine maintaining a distinction in nomenclature, reflecting the subtle distinctions between:
    1) one who sews out of necessity or for a living (seamster/seamstress);
    2) one who sews useful items, but for fun (sewer/stitcher/quilter);
    3) one who sews purely for the art of it, producing items meant only to be admired rather than used, e.g., wall hangings or “show” quilts, and is a proponent of such art (sewist/quiltist?).

  5. Probably should add ‘tailor’ to the #1distinction. That thought had come to my mind with the problem of gender specific ‘seamstress.’ Even though a woman might sew suits, I think one still might equate ‘tailor’ with a male sewist. Could that be ‘tailorist?’ Also, when I hear the word ‘sewer’ my first thought is of someone planting seeds.

    • Yes, we do need to mention tailor, but a tailor is not equivalent to a sewer or seamster, because a tailor necessarily fits (ie does fittings”) and might even design outfits, but may employ others to do the sewing, and because a tailor only deals with clothing, whereas a sewer could sew anything (sheets, sails, decorative wall hangings…) So a tailor’s role is in some senses larger, and in other senses smaller, than the role of a sewer.

  6. Seamster’s Union – a line of stitches that joins two or more pieces of fabic

  7. The word is useful to we cruciverbalists for misdirection in our clues, for example a colonial sewer for Betsy Ross. We like words like that. For instance a French flower might be the Seine, while a railspliter might be a river.

  8. Pingback: Word Confusion: Sew vs So vs Sow | KD DID IT Takes on Books

  9. Pingback: Word Confusion: Sew vs So vs Sow |

  10. Pingback: awry | Sesquiotica

  11. Thank you for a clear & concise explanation.

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