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A rule made of whole cloth?

Q: A colleague studying English was reprimanded by her teacher for saying a “piece” of clothing, rather than an “item” or “article.” A Google search, however, results in over five million hits for “a piece of clothing.” Is the teacher right or is that rule made of whole cloth?

A: There’s nothing wrong with calling an item of clothing a “piece.” Garments are often referred to this way. In fact, the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary repeatedly use “piece” in definitions to refer to items of clothing.

I can’t imagine what the teacher’s objection could be, unless he or she believes a “piece” can only be an incomplete, broken-off part of something else.

But “piece” has been used to mean a separate, individual item (as in a “piece of artillery”) for centuries.

Even if you regard a “piece” as incomplete, the phrase “a piece of clothing” makes sense. You could regard a “piece” of clothing as part of a person’s general apparel, which would include other such “pieces.”

The OED says that “piece” has been used to refer to a length of cloth since the 12th century or earlier. (Even today in the textile industry, a “piece” or bolt of cloth is 50 or 70 yards long.)

For several hundred years, the word has also been used to refer, among other things, to a coin (as in “pieces of eight”), a plot of land, a cask of wine, a roll of wallpaper, and a heavy firearm, as well as a literary, musical, or artistic composition.

So, yes, that English teacher’s rule against saying a “piece” of clothing is indeed made of whole cloth.

By the way, the expression “made of whole cloth” didn’t always mean false or without foundation.

When the phrase “whole cloth” entered English in the 15th century, it referred to an entire, manufactured swath of cloth before pieces were cut off for garments.

People began using the phrase figuratively in the 16th century in expressions like “cut out of the whole cloth.”

For a few hundred years, these expressions had various positive meanings. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that “made of whole cloth” took on its negative sense.

Finally, a few words about your Google search and those five million hits for “a piece of clothing.” We won’t say that millions of Google hits can’t be wrong, but in this case they’re right on the money.

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