In History, Names, What is, Words

Cowboy in chaps

If – and I realise this is a big ‘if’ – you’ve recently succumbed to the primeval urge to buy a chainsaw, you’ll be familiar with the catalogue of YouTube videos offering sage advice on how to deploy said tool without cutting your face in half or losing a leg. Among the many recommended items of PPE is a garment I remember from my childhood days watching cowboy films.

I’m talking, of course, about chaps – those backless overtrousers worn with great panache by everyone from Crazy Horse to Buffalo Bill. Their purpose was to protect the legs from the scratchy brush that the Mexicans called ‘chaparral’. Pancho Villa and his compadres duly dubbed their overtrousers ‘chaparreras’ and the Western cowboys shortened it to ‘chaps’.

So that’s the etymology taken care of, but that’s no help when it comes to trying to buy the things in leafy Surrey. They’re not the sort of items you find in Marks and Sparks. An online search brings up a number of styles modelled by women who frankly don’t look dressed for serious lumber work at all and, while refining the search to ‘chaps for chaps’ does yield some more heavy duty options, it seems they have to be worn with a studded leather thong. It’s PPE gone mad!

If you reverse engineer this definition of chaps, you might pounce on the conclusion that a person who makes or sells chaps is a chapman and that must be where the surname comes from. In fact, Tracy, Lee, Graham and all their namesakes are not descended from the scrubland of the High Chaparral but from the tinkers’ wagons of Olde England. A chapman was a travelling salesman, see, the ‘chap’ bit having the sense of bartering, trading etc.

Chapman was later used to mean a customer too and was abbreviated by cheeky shopkeepers, who greeted customers, male or female, with a cheery, “Morning, chap, what I can do for you today?”

“I’d like something for my lips please. Look, they’re all cracked.”

“Ooh, nasty chapping, chap. But I’m afraid I can’t help you because the verb to chap – as pertaining to your lips – comes from a completely different source altogether, possibly French or Dutch, meaning to chop or cut.”

“Ah, that reminds me. Do you sell chaps for chaps?”

And so it goes on, day after day, in a shop somewhere near you. Interestingly, from the same origin we get the word ‘cheap’. Olde Englanders used ‘cheap’ to mean a market as well as a bargain, so now you never need to scratch your head again when you’re walking down Cheapside and wondering why it’s not.

Chaps aren’t cheap either, by the way, unless you go for the plastic fancy dress ones, which aren’t really robust enough for chainsaw work.

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