Now that winter is here, people are putting away their oxford and derby shoes and getting out their winter wool. That means it’s time for another of my stylo-linguistic pet-peeves to rear its ugly head. Today I’m going to complain about pea coats.
First thing’s first though: a word on language. Some words are defined within parameters. That is to say, if it has a certain characteristic, it always falls under a certain category. Oxford and Derby shoes are an example of this sort of definition: they signal very specific construction methods and all shoes either are or are not oxford or derby shoes. Most words however, are not so easy. They refer to archetypal ideas, what Plato called forms.
According to wikipedia, the term “pea coat” comes from the Dutch word pijjekker. The jacket was mentioned in American newspapers as early as 1720. They were worn by European and North American Navy personnel because of their warmth and durability. Pea coat is a platonic form. The archetypal pea coat is pictured below.
There are a few features that define the pea coat:
Double breasted – that’s two rows of buttons, not one. If it has one row of buttons it’s just a wool coat.
Wool – If you make jeans out of anything that’s not denim, they’re just pants. Likewise, if you make a pea coat out of anything other than wool, it’s not a pea coat anymore.
Butt length – If a pea coat is thigh length, it’s called a bridge coat. If it has gold buttons it’s called a reefer. Historically in the Navy, a person’s rank was determined by the coat they wore and pea coats go to your butt so the officers know who make walk the plank.
If a coat has all of these attributes, it’s definitely a pea-style coat, though probably not an authentic pea coat. If it has two of these but not the third, it has nothing to do with a pea coat at all. It’s just a coat. To be an authentic pea coat it needs to have a few more things:
Vertical pockets – Classic pea coats have vertical slits to keep your hands warm in cold and wet conditions.
Navy colour – Classic pea coats are almost always navy because they were word by the navy. It’s not just a random name.
Anchor buttons – Again, this tradition comes from the military history of the attire.
You may ask, “who are you to tell us what is the archetypal pea coat?”. My answer to that is simple. Pea coats have fascinating history spanning three centuries and the whole globe. Through all that time, the garment has remained the same. If you learn where words come from, you learn about history, language, culture, and geography. If you use words wrongly, you erase all of these things.