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Words and Sayings

Bags and Cases
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Why do we put suits in garment bags and garments in suit cases?

This is an example of developed usage from an original term.

A suitcase was originally the designation for a case (bag) specifically designed to carry suits.  "Suit" was originally any coordinated wearing apparel, not just the man's or woman's dress "suit," as the word is now used.  

You might recognize the word in another form we use today:  suite, usually pronounced "sweet."  This spelling form is also sometimes pronounced "sute," the same as suit.  The similar meaning might be pronounced either way in some usages.  For instance, you might hear someone speak of a living room suit ("sute")or a living room suite ("sweet").  Furniture store ads might use either spelling, and you could pronounce it as you prefer.

So a "suit" of clothes was a set of garments that went together.  (Note the similarity of "suit" and "set," also.)  Thus a "suitcase" was the term for any carrying case for clothes.

The terms were adjusted slightly as styles, technologies and preferences changed.  Thus the flexible bag for carrying clothes (usually short distances, or for protecting while hanging) came to be referred to as a clothes bag, then for "nicety," the more sophisticated alternative term "garment bag" was also used.

Thus the various terms continue to be used alongside, with slightly different shades of meaning or preference in different areas or subcultures.

In general, the word "case" has now come to refer to a hard-sided, usually larger, receptacle while "bag" refers to a soft, small item which can be carried easily.  As new materials developed, "soft-sided" suitcases were developed.

Though soft-sided, they are still firm and shaped, not like a sports bag, or duffle bag, which can be wadded, rolled or folded up.  Or a hanging clothes bag, which liewise may be folded or rolled for storage when not in use.

Thus we find a consistent connection of the word "case" or "suitcase" with basic definition of "case" as a hard-sided item is confirmed.  The use of the word suit, however, has changed, leading to somewhat of an anomaly in the use of the words for carrying the suit or garment.

English is full of words which are extended in use, applied in new ways to different technology or use, and traveling great distances from their original home, yet still connected by the ties of logical form and original meaning.  What fun foreigners have trying to make sense out of this topsy-turvy language!


First written 30 April 2001 on an Internet discussion group
Updated and posted 22 November 2004

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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