‘French,’ cried my husband. ‘It’s bloody French.’ We were clicking on a computer screen in response to the dear old Telegraph’s invitation to ‘test out your etymological knowledge’. The little game accompanied news of an exhibition in London called The English Effect, mounted by the British Council. I had already got one of the 20 questions wrong, because I didn’t know the origin of honcho and clicked on the option ‘Mexican’ (whatever that means) instead of Japanese. In a way honcho is American, having been ‘brought back from Japan by fliers stationed there during the occupation and during the Korean fighting’, according to the journal American Speech in 1955, as I discovered later.
Anyway, my husband, glorying in my failure with honcho, was roaring the Frenchness of the word cravat. To spite him, I clicked on ‘Lithuanian’.
The truth is that cravat passed through France much as one passes through Paris when changing from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare du Nord on the way back from Florence. Cravat is simply a form of Croat, from the Croatian word Hrvat. Cravate is first recorded in French in 1652 and in English, as Crabbat, in 1656. As a fashion item imitating the linen neck-cloths of Croatian mercenaries, it was in the 1650s regarded in England as a ‘gorget which women wear’, but by the 1670s as something worn by soldiers and travellers instead of a ‘band’. No one wears bands now, apart from lawyers and ecclesiastics, but in 1632, on the brink of the cravat craze, Robert Sherwood, the first man to compile an English-French/ French-English dictionary, distinguished three bands for the neck: the generic term collet in French; the falling band, rabat; and the ruffe band, fraize.
The Oxford English Dictionary got quite frisky about the cravat in 1893, noting that ‘more recently the name was given to a linen or silk handkerchief passed once (or twice) round the neck outside the shirt collar and tied with a bow in front’. In 1888, W.P. Frith, the painter of ‘Derby Day’, remembered Dickens wearing ‘one of the large cravats which had not then gone out of fashion’. They certainly have now, of any size. My husband tried to wear one — once.