pillowslip

A little (deeply inconclusive) exercise in judging the sociocultural status of a linguistic variant, in this case pillowslip (vs. pillowcase). On ADS-L today, Wilson Gray reported hearing pillowslip spoken by an Australian from New South Wales, commenting:

Mildly surprising. Pillowslip was the ordinary term that I used as a child, in East Texas. I have no idea whether this form is used anywhere else in the U.S., bedclothes not being a particularly common topic of conversation outside of the family. IAC [if anybody cares], it seems to me that pillowcase is the preferred term, in Yankspeak.

(Further information: Wilson is black and about my age, ca. 80.)

My own recollection is that pillowslip was the usual term among the working-class rural/suburban whites I grew up with in southeastern Pennsylvania, but that it was somewhat old-fashioned and was eventually eclipsed by the preferred commercial term, pillowcase.

But these are recollections (which might be skewed), of the usages in our personal experiences (which are tiny samplings of English usage at the time), colored by our impressions of more general usage (which might be completely off-base). So who knows what the actual story is?

I also had the impression that pillowslip had gone out of use, but a few moments’ searching showed me that that was far from true: there’s lots of advertising on the net for pillowslips. In fact, a Google search in which duplicates were discarded shows the two variants to be very close in current web usage (170 for pillowslip, 190 for pillowcase). (Note: this search was only on the solid spellings, not the hyphenated or separate spellings — where, I think, case heavily predominates over slip.)

A Google Ngram search, which looks at usage in a lot of books, shows a different picture: pillowslip at a pretty much constant low level from about 1910 on, while pillowcase started picking up around 1890 and rose significantly from about 1920 on, reaching levels way way above pillowslip. Pillowship is clearly the preferred term.

The citations in OED3 (March 2006) have pillowcase as the older term (first cite 1633, vs. 1793 for pillowslip), with both attested through to recent times, but with a British slant to the pillowslip cites. It might be that in the U.S. these days, pillowslip has both the advantages and disadvantages of a usage that’s perceived to be old-fashioned and British, but also elevated.

None of this shines much light on who uses the terms (what are their geographical and social distributions?), to whom, in what contexts (are there differences in style or register?), for what purposes. Here all we have are a few anecdotal reports, from which little can be concluded.

The ADS-L discussion did include some investigation by Peter Reitan on one particular subcase:

Last year I wrote a piece about the history of toga parties. When they first became a fad in the 1870s, they were generally known as “sheet and pillow-slip parties.”  The earliest accounts suggest they started in California.  The earliest example of a college fraternity “pillow slip” party I could find is from the 1880s at Ohio State.  President Franklin Roosevelt even had a toga-themed birthday party at the White House in 1934.
There are reports of “pillow slip parties,” by that name, during every decade from 1870 through 1970, so “pillow slip” does not seem to have been strictly regional, although I haven’t looked closely at “pillow slip,” standing alone.

2 Responses to “pillowslip”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I learned “pillowslip” from my parents in the 1940s, and it’s the word I use today. My parents, born in 1906, were from Oregon, both of New England ancestry.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Probal Dasgupta on Facebook:

    Double plus interesting: I had never heard the word ‘pillowslip’ before.

    Not that you recall, anyway. But it clearly is infrequent.

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