Ruffled apron.

Apron is found in English writing in 1307 as naperonns, a reflection of its French origins as naperon, a diminutive form of nape “table cloth”, which comes from the Latin mappa “table-napkin”.

First off, this means that apron and napkin come from the same place.

Napkin-folding instructions from Mrs Beeton’s Family Cookery Book (1923)

English takes naperon from French as a word for “the article of dress” used to “protect clothes from dirt or injury” and then, a few decades later, takes nape “cloth for table” from French (again) and adds the Dutch suffix –kin “small” to get napkin (or, what were apparently competing synonyms at the time, napet or napella).

Second, it means that somewhere along the way, English speakers made a shift from a napron to an apron.

“a napron” or “an apron” – it’s a spontaneous reanalysis of the article-word boundary. Or it just keeps your clothes clean.

You can use apron as an adjective.  As in apron-child (a child old enough to stand if holding on to mom’s apron), apron-string (what no one wants to let go of, c.f. apron-child) and apron-husband (not quite what you think, instead apron-husband refers to a man that “meddles with his wife’s business”).

This is what you get when you google “apron man”. Well, this and a lot of pornographic kitchen-wear.

A more recent term for ‘apron’ is pinafore, which comes from the combination of to pin the verb and afore “in front”.   This term surfaces in writing in the late 1700s, along with its siblings, pinbefore and pincloth.  All of these refer to the same kind of apron – one which ties around the waist, but has an upper square that is pinned onto the shirt to hold it up.  Pinafores were associated especially with young children, both boys and girls, worn to protect their clothes.

A pinafore.

Alas, “pinbefore” and “pincloth” are now considered obsolete –  as are pins.  Pinafores today (?!) are, like the one pictured above, pin-less (probably wise when the covering is used in combination with small children).

From the 1850s on, we also see the use of pinny as a shortened form of pinafore.

My question: if a pinafore looks this nice, what do you wear over it to keep it clean?

When you have a traditional apron that ties at the waist, the top half of an apron is referred to as the bib, which can be pinned, looped, or tied behind the neck. The word bib probably comes from the verb bib “to drink” (a lot), which we see in words like imbibe. These days, we are most likely to see a bib on a baby.  Or a lobster-crawfish-ribs eater.

A half-apron at work (in a 1920s cookbook).

Meet the 1950s hostess apron. A wee bit less functional and a wee bit transparent.

You can, of course, have a half-apron (also referred to in the 1950s as a hostess apron or cocktail apron) whose function is primarily to indicate that it was in fact the wearer that prepared the food (probably while wearing a full apron made of non-transparent material).

The smock. (The 1970s were a hard, hard time. But we kept clean.)

The oldest word in English for ‘apron’ is actually smock, which appears to be related to Old English smuggan “to creep” (likened to Old Norse smjuga “to creep into, put on, a garment”).  A smock can be more like a dress than a covering, as it can be full-length with sleeves (which apparently must be put on slowly).

The word smock first appears in English writing around 1000, but at that time referred to a “woman’s undergarment; a shift or chemise”.   Smock goes over clothes in the 1800s as part of the phrase smock-frock “loose-fitting garment of coarse linen or the like”, which was a garment worn by farm-laborers “over or instead of a coat”. The smock-frock keeps its shape, loses the –frock, and gains wider popularity in the 1930s, as a covering for artists and gardeners.

Yeah, birds don’t put mine on either.

So, cover up in the kitchen, keep your clothes olive-oil-splatter free.  Wear an apron.  And use cloth napkins while you’re at it.


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