Q&A: ‘Straightjacket’ vs ‘Straitjacket’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, straight talk…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about psychiatric hospitals.

A: Hmmmm, no. We don’t think you need one.

Q: Thank you. But my question is about a certain item of clothing you might find in one of these places.

A: A hospital gown?

Q: No. A different item.

A: A nurse’s uniform?

Q: Ugh. I’m talking about a ‘straightjacket’! 

A: Ah.

Q: However, recently my mind was totally blown.

A: At the psychiatric hospital? We didn’t think they were allowed to do that anymore…

Q: No – mind blown by the fact that it’s ACTUALLY spelt “straitjacket”! What’s the deal?

A: You’re right. It IS spelt “straitjacket” – one word. (Occasionally strait-jacket with a hyphen too.) And the Macquarie Dictionary defines it as a kind of coat for confining the arms of violently insane persons, etc”.

Q: But I always assumed it was “straight” as it has those long straight arms, or at very least, it was used to keep one on the “straight and narrow”?

A: That saying, by the way, dates back to the early 1840s, but no, it was never about that.

Q: What then?

A: The word “straitjacket” first appeared in English in 1795 – the garment being a natural successor to the “strait-waistcoat” that had popped up about half a century earlier. And the “strait” in the name came from the much older adjective to mean “tight, close fitting”.

Q: Well I suppose that makes sense.

A: The original adjective “strait” had appeared around 1300, to mean “narrow, not wide” and it would be followed around 1400 with that garment definition, which is rather similar in its narrow/restricting vibe.

Q: So “strait” means “narrow”, yet the phrase is “straight and narrow”??!

A: Yep. We don’t make the rules.

Q: I always thought a “strait” was a stretch of water?

A: Ahhh, yeah that noun form didn’t come till the late 1400s, as “a narrow passage of water connecting two larger bodies”. Examples include “Cook Strait” between New Zealand’s North and South island or the “Bass Strait” between mainland Australia and Tasmania. Another famous one is the “Straits of Gibraltar”.

Q: And Dire Straits? Where in the world are they?

A: They haven’t toured since the ‘90s.

Q: Haha. But is it a place?

A: Nope. That term refers to ANOTHER meaning for “strait” that appeared in the 1540s. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines this noun as “a situation of perplexity or distress, often used in plural”. So, if you’re in “dire straits”, then things must be extra bad!

Q: So the 1980s band invented the term?

A: Not at all. The term “dire straits” had appeared in a few publications at the turn of the 20th century, but it was US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who made it famous in a Great Depression-era 1933 speech about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.”

Q: If only he could’ve given them ‘money for nothing’.

A: Haha.

Q: So can we return to our ‘brothers in arms’? Long, restraining arms that is.

A: Ah yes. To recap, the “straitjacket” was named such because “strait” defined a tight-fitting item of clothing. The term “strait-waisted” also came from there, and then there’s another that might also blow your mind.

Q: Okay, try me.

A: “Straitlaced”. 

Q: But whaaaaaaa? I always thought if you’re quite prudish, then you’re “straightlaced”?

A: Nope. That term came from the literal bodice in the 1400s – one that was tight fitting and had to be laced up. That figurative sense of “over-precise, prudish, strict in manners or morals” arrived in the 1550s and was also spelt “straitlaced”!

Q: I seriously always would have thought it was “straight-laced”. Because colloquially, if someone is “straight” today, it can mean something similar, right?

A: Yeah, these days, “straight” has a LOT of meanings, and to call someone straight – besides the obvious sexual orientation – is to call someone conventional, honest or true.

Q: I’m really starting to doubt ALL the spellings in this area!

A: No, we’ve actually dealt with the biggies. “Straitjacket” and “straitlaced” as well as being in “dire straits”. The rest are spelt as you might expect – “straight”.

Q: Examples?

A: You might keep a “straight face” if you have a “straight flush” in poker. Or if you’re honest, you might be called a “straight shooter”. Anything about being true or in a line is “straight”. Restricted, tight, or in a plight? That’s “strait”!

Q: So, is it really NEVER spelt “straightjacket”?

A: Okay, you got us. Language is ever changing, and because people keep getting it wrong, many dictionaries now accept “straightjacket” as a less common variation. But please don’t use it – especially now that you know the true origin story.

Q: And is it the same thing for “straitlaced”?

A: Actually, no. That’s only ever accepted as “straitlaced” – or perhaps “strait-laced” with a hyphen.

Q: Well, I’m glad we got that story straight. I thought I was losing my mind there for a while.

A: Oh really? Perhaps we can interest you in this jacket? It has lovely long arms…

Q: Noooooo!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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