Reefers
Posted: 28 April 2007 03:16 AM   [ Ignore ]
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In Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Oxbow Incident he refers (pardon the pun) to the “reefer jackets” or “reefers” that some of the cowboys are wearing. The term is in use today. It’s what I would call a pea coat or jacket. Here’s Wikipedia:

The name “Pea Coat” has its origins in the Dutch or Frisian word pij for a type of cloth. The terms peacoat and peajacket were first used in the eighteenth century. The OED has the first mention of “peajacket” in 1717. They were also commonly called “pilot coat” through the 19th century.

Note the reference to the OED. Perhaps Wordorigins is having an effect on the blog world.

The book was published in 1940 but is supposed to take place in 1885. Clark was a resident of Nevada from 1909 as a boy and he may have had plenty of opportunity to take in cowboy speech patterns. The first twenty pages are certainly a tour de force of horse talk and cowboy lingo. We all know what a reef is, but looking it up in the AHD I found this:

NOUN: Nautical A portion of a sail rolled and tied down to lessen the area exposed to the wind. 
TRANSITIVE VERB: Inflected forms: reefed, reef·ing, reefs
1. To reduce the size of (a sail) by tucking in a part and tying it to or rolling it around a yard. 2. To shorten (a topmast or bowsprit) by taking part of it in. 
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English riff, from Old Norse rif, ridge, reef. 

and for reefer:

NOUN: 1. A short, heavy, close-fitting, double-breasted jacket. 2. A close-fitting, single-breasted or double-breasted coat. 3. Nautical A person, such as a midshipman, who reefs. 

Curious that the AHD puts the derivative noun for the article of clothing before the person who wore it and on whom it was based. Oh well. Apparently the famous marihuana cigarette term was based on the idea of rolling up a sail. One wonders also if riff, as in guitar, is related. However my real question is whether cowboys wore sailors jackets and referred to them as such, or was this some kind of nonce conception of van Tilburg Clark’s?

[ Edited: 28 April 2007 03:26 AM by foolscap ]
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Posted: 28 April 2007 04:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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My SOED (3rd edition) gives 1829 as the earliest date for reefer in the sense “midshipman”, 1856 for reefing-jacket , and 1883 for reefer in the sense “jacket”.

Certainly that type of coat was no longer a distinctively nautical garment by the 1880s, but was in fairly wide use for outdoor wear under various names (pilot coat, reefing jacket, etc); so it’s quite plausible that cowboys in 1880s Nevada wore them, and possible that they called them reefers.

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