Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe copyeditor who also writes a blog, The Word, reported recently on a funny transformation of the fashion term "empire." She read about it in A Dress a Day, which is no ordinary fashion-and-sewing blog: its author is lexicographer Erin McKean, coiner of McKean's Law ("Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error").
McKean asks whether the empire waist -- that style that makes Jane Austen heroines look so fetching, and real people so pregnant -- is fostering the notion that the "empire" is a location on the body.
In case I've lost you, up to your left is an example of the empire silhouette, which was all the rage in the early 19th century--the age of Napoleon I's empire (which explains why fashion mavens insist on the French pronunciation, ahm-PEER).
Back to the 21st century. One of her readers had sent Erin a photo of a contemporary wrap dress that included this description: It cinches at the empire (the ideal spot for a wrap to fall).
Which suggests, says Erin, that the writer "posits there is a part of the body called 'the empire,' which is right under the bust, above the natural waist."
It would be easy to write this off as an error (which I guess it technically is, at this point) but it's more interesting to look at it as an example of lexical change. (Perhaps this belongs on my other blog?) There are lots of different ways that words can change, but I think this is an example of a folk-etymological change.
If you had never made the connection that "empire" in this context refers to an actual empire, it would be completely logical to assume that "empire" is a more genteel way to say "high-waisted" or "under bust," right? Folk etymologies come up with explanations that seem logical and that fit the facts. Which is a simpler explanation: that a silhouette is named after some long-dead French people, or that the name is based on the part of the body it emphasizes?
Actually, it might make sense to have a name for that under-the-bust circumference, since the bra people -- the ones who are always claiming that 7 or 8 or 9 out of 10 women wear the wrong size, though how the heck would they know? -- always instruct you to measure there first. They could say it more economically: "Your cup size depends on the difference between your empire and your bust."
But wait, there's more! In the comments to Erin's post, Sarah writes that she's noticed "People On The Internet writing about their 'umpire' waisted dresses, which confused me a great deal until I realised they'd been watching too much Stacy and Clinton."
Umpire waists? As in, belted under the generous belly overhang?
No, I didn't think so.
A umpire dress works wonders and still looks cute after you loose [sic] the weight. This style is fitted around the top and then flows away from the body.
As Heidi Klum might say on Project Runway, "In fashion, one day you're in, and the next ... yer OUT!!!"