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Our slant on ‘bias’

Q: I came across a T-shirt on Amazon that shows a sewing machine and the words “never trust a seamstress, she’s likely biased.” As a sewer who sometimes cuts fabric on the bias, I’m curious about where all the biases come from.

A: English adopted “bias” in the early 1500s from Middle French (spoken from the 14th to 16th centuries), in which biais meant either oblique or obliqueness.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the French term is “of unknown origin,” and notes that a theory that it comes from bifax, classical Latin for two-faced, has been rejected by scholars “as phonetically untenable.”

“Bias” showed up first in English as a noun for an “oblique or slanting line,” the OED says, but adds that this sense now appears only in sewing, where “on the bias” refers to fabric cut or pieced “diagonally, across the texture.”

The earliest Oxford example for “bias” is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “Byas of an hose, bias.”

It’s unclear whether Palsgrave is referring to hosiery with a diagonal design or to hose made from fabric cut on the bias, which allows woven cloth to stretch.

The actual expression “on the bias” didn’t show up in writing until hundreds of years later. The first Oxford example is from the Oct. 29, 1880, issue of the Melbourne Bulletin: “The clothing … may not be cut on the bias.”

However, we’ve found several earlier examples that refer to fabric pieced or cut “on the bias.” The earliest is from the January 1818 issue of the Ladies’ Monthly Museum, a British magazine:

“The petticoat is made full, and trimmed with large satin roses, placed two together on the bias, and attached by a band of crimped crape; long sleeves made rather tight, with a pointed cuff, and trimmed to correspond with the collar.”

The first example we’ve found for cutting “on the bias” is from The Scottish Gaël, an 1831 book about Celtic customs, by James Logan:

“An error in weaving would equally derange the operation of making up a jacket, which consumes a considerable quantity of cloth, being cut on the bias, and is a work of great nicety and skill.”

The OED says the noun “bias” in the sewing sense refers to “a wedge-shaped piece or gore, cut obliquely to the texture of a woven fabric.” (For readers unfamiliar with the term, “gore” refers to a triangular or tapering piece of material.)

The noun gave English the adjective “bias,” meaning slanting or oblique. The first Oxford example is from The Pathway to Knowledge,” a 1551 book on geometry by Robert Record:

“By the Bias line, I meane that lyne, whiche in any square figure dooth runne from corner to corner.”

Two decades later, the noun took on a new sense—as a term in the sport of bowls or lawn bowls.

As the OED explains, the term “bias” here refers to both the “form of the bowl imparting an oblique motion” and “the kind of impetus given to cause it to run obliquely.”

“Thus a bowl is said ‘to have a wide or narrow bias,’ ‘to run with a great’ or ‘little bias’; the player ‘gives it more’ or ‘less bias’ in throwing it,” the dictionary adds.

The first Oxford example for “bias” used in bowls is from a margin note in The Life of the 70 Archbishops of Canterbury (1570), an anonymous translation and update of a work in Latin: “As you haue sett youre bias, so runneth your bowle.”

All the modern meanings of “bias” and its offshoots are derived from the original oblique sense of the noun or from its oblique sense in lawn bowls. We won’t discuss all the senses here, just the most common ones.

The use of “bias” for a tendency, a predisposition, or a prejudice showed up in the early 1570s. The first OED citation is from Ane Detectioun of the Duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (1571), by George Buchanan: “She commeth to her own byace, and openly sheweth hir owne naturall conditions.”

The term soon came to mean “a swaying influence” that may turn someone to a particular course. This example is from Tragicall Tales (1587), the English poet George Turberville’s translations of Italian stories by Giovanni Boccaccio and Matteo Bandello: “That to the end he might the maid Unto his bias bring.”

In the mid-1600s, the adjective “biased” took on the sense of “Influenced; inclined in some direction; unduly or unfairly influenced; prejudiced,” according to the OED. (The adjective “biased” comes from the verb “bias.” Both had shown up earlier in the 1600s as terms in lawn bowls.)

The first Oxford citation for “biased” used in the “influenced” or “prejudiced” sense is from Trinarchodia (1646), a poem about Richard II by the Yorkshire writer George Daniel: “How byased all humane Actions are!”

In the early 20th century, “bias” became a term in statistics for a “systematic distortion of an expected statistical result due to a factor not allowed for in its derivation” and “a tendency to produce such distortion,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED example is from the July 1900 issue of the monthly London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine: “The results show a bias from the theoretical results, 5 and 6 points occurring more frequently than they should do.”

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