English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Words with a checkered past

Q: What is the difference between “plaid” and “tartan”? I’ve found many answers online, but they’re not consistent. Can you help?

A: We can see why you’re confused. The terms “plaid” and “tartan” are often used interchangeably, and the definitions in standard dictionaries differ in one way or another.

To confuse things more, the same design or fabric may be “plaid” in one place and “tartan” in another. The popular checked design called Buffalo plaid in the US, for instance, is Rob Roy tartan in Scotland.

Despite their differences, dictionaries in both the US and the UK generally describe “plaid” as a pattern or fabric with a crisscross motif that includes “tartan” designs associated with Scotland.

Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, broadly defines “plaid” (the fabric) as “Chequered or tartan twilled cloth, typically made of wool.”

Oxford defines “tartan” more precisely as “a woollen cloth woven in one of several patterns of coloured checks and intersecting lines, especially of a design associated with a particular Scottish clan.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “plaid” broadly as “a pattern on cloth of stripes with different widths that cross each other to form squares.”

But Merriam-Webster’s defines “tartan” more narrowly as “a traditional Scottish cloth pattern of stripes in different colors and widths that cross each other to form squares.”

The two of us use “plaid” as a general term for a design or cloth with a criss-cross pattern of stripes of various widths. But we use “tartan” for a design or fabric in a Highland clan pattern or one that’s similar.

Interestingly, the “traditional” association of tartan patterns with specific Scottish clans isn’t all that traditional. We’ll have more to say about this later, but first let’s talk about what makes a “plaid” design “tartan.”

On House Beautiful magazine’s website, the designer Scot Meacham Wood provides an explanation for why “All tartans are plaid, but not all plaids are tartan.”

“All plaids and tartans are comprised of stripes (in varying sizes and colors) that meet at a 90-degree angle,” he says. “We start heading into ‘tartan’ territory by looking at the geometry on the pattern.”

With nearly every tartan, he writes, “the pattern on the stripes running vertically is exactly duplicated on the horizontal axis too. Basically, this matching pattern in both directions will create a grid.”

“When looking at a simple plaid,” he adds, “you’ll notice that the stripes—either in color, size, or pattern—are not the same in both directions.”

Although the “tartan” pattern is now associated with Scotland, cloth has been woven with similar designs for thousands of years, according to the textile archeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

In The Mummies of Ürümchi (1999), she discusses similarities between the tartan-like leggings on a 3,000-year-old mummy found in China and the plaid textiles produced in Central Europe some 2,500 years ago.

As for the etymology, “plaid” and “tartan” had overlapping meanings when they showed up in Scottish English in the early 1500s, much as the two terms do today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the origins of the words are uncertain, but “plaid” may perhaps be related to the verb “ply” (to bend or fold cloth or other material) and “tartan” to tiretaine, an Old French term for a cloth made of wool mixed with linen or cotton.

When “plaid” first appeared, the OED says, it referred to “a twilled woollen cloth, usually with a chequered or tartan pattern.” Later, the term could also mean “any fabric having a tartan pattern.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, from a 1510 entry in the accounts of the diocese of Dunkeld in central Scotland, refers to an expense of two shillings for dying four ells of “plaidis.” (In Scotland, an ell was a length of 37.2 inches.)

About the same time, Oxford says, a “plaid” could also mean a length of such material “worn in the north of England and all parts of Scotland, later mainly in the Scottish Highlands, and now chiefly as part of the ceremonial dress of the pipe bands of Scottish regiments.”

The dictionary adds that outside the Highlands the material was “worn as a shawl by women, and as a cloak or mantle by men, but in the Highlands also as the principal article of dress.”

The OED’s earliest example for this usage is from a 1512 entry in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland:

“Item, the vj day of Maij, in Air, for ane plaid to be the King ane coit” (“Item, the sixth day of May, in Ayr, for one plaid to be the King’s own coat”).

As for “tartan,” the OED defines it as a woolen cloth, associated with the Scottish Highlands, that is “woven in stripes of various colours crossing at right angles so as to form a regular pattern” or “the pattern or design of such cloth.”

Oxford has one questionable citation dating from sometime before 1500, but the first definite example is from a 1533 item in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland: “For fresing of ane tartane galcot” (“For shearing of one tartan jacket”).

The dictionary notes that each Scottish Highland clan generally has a distinctive “tartan” pattern, “often preceded by a clan-name, etc. denoting a particular traditional or authorized design.”

However, the earliest example in the OED for a tartan pattern linked to a specific clan dates back only to the 19th century. Here’s the citation from David Stewart’s Sketches of the Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland (1822):

“The pipers wore a red tartan of very bright colours, (of the pattern known by the name of the Stewart tartan).”

The earliest known tartan in Scotland can be dated to the third or fourth century AD, according to the Scottish Tartans Museum.

“Originally, tartan designs had no names, and no symbolic meaning,” the museum says on its website.  “All tartan cloth was hand woven, and usually supplied locally.”

Although “certain colors or pattern motifs were more common in some areas than others, no regulated or defined ‘clan tartan’ system ever existed,” according to the museum.

“Tartan, in general, however came to be extremely popular in Scottish Highland culture,” the museum adds. “So much so that by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tartan clothing is seen to be characteristic of Highland dress.”

In fact, Britain briefly prohibited the wearing of tartan (except in British military uniforms) after defeating the Jacobite forces, primarily Scottish Highlanders, at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that specific tartan designs began to be associated with the various Highlands clans, thanks to the commercial production of tartan and the interest of expatriate Scots in preserving what they mistakenly thought of as an old tradition.

“In 1815 the Highland Society of London wrote to the clan chiefs asking them to submit samples of their clan tartans,” the museum says. “Many chiefs had no idea what ‘their clan tartan’ was supposed to be.”

So the clan chiefs “either wrote to tartan suppliers” for a design “or asked the older men of their clan if they recalled any particular tartan being worn.”

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