Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

You say underarm, I say armpit. Or oxter. Or…?

5 Comments

7-minute read


A recent article in the i (Independent) reported that 40 per cent of men aged 16 to 24 removed the hair from their underarms. (Yuck! To the shaving, I mean, not the hair.)

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have underarms. I have armpits. And if I spoke Scots, I might well use the word oxter for “The hollow under the arm where it is attached to the trunk, below the shoulder; the axilla”.

“So what?” you might well ask.


Well, there are three reasons for my interest. Two of them are linguistic. First, underarm for me still carries a hygienic and sanitised whiff of advertising-speak. (It is also tagged in my mental lexicon as an adjective, as in under-arm deodorant.) And second, on investigating I find a surprising number of words – ten, actually – have been used for this generally unloved and unregarded little anatomical dingle.

Those words also show some of the sources from which English has hoovered up words over the centuries. They are the usual suspects of French (at various stages of development), Latin, Dutch (at various stages…), Old English, Nordic.

The third reason could, at a pinch (U.S. in a pinch), be called sociological.

That the 16–24-year-olds lawn-mower their oxters puzzles me (as someone almost three times that age). Why? I find it enough of a bind having to shave one’s fizzog regularly, without resorting to a form of cosmetic self-punishment that until not so long ago was the exclusive bane of women.

This body-hairlessness thang was called the “Love Island” effect in the article. (I can’t say I’ve ever watched that programme and have no intention of doing so now.) However, so it seems, the young chaps appearing on it are invariably never hirsute; and therefore, apparently, any braw young tup in the so-called “real world” has to be similarly hairless if he is to have any hope of finding his ewe-mate.

Beats me. Call me reactionary, call me a fuddy-duddy, call me a dinosaur, call me a dodo, call me granddad, call me a Piers Morgan (no, please, anything but that) – I just find it somehow unmanly.

I’ve digressed bigly.

Going back to matters of language, underarm first appeared in 1933. That’s right, rather less than a century ago.

Q: You mean, it was taboo to talk about them before that, like Victorian piano legs, and all that?

A: Er, no. I don’t.

I mean that there’s a long and quirky history of talking about axillae (as the anatomists would have it) that goes something like what follows. I list below the OED dates for the different words; choose a juicy citation or two for each; and mention the etymology.

A armhole – before 1325 (Edward II sits on the English throne; David II on the Scottish throne)

1535   Bible (CoverdaleJer. xxxviii. 12   Put these ragges and cloutes vnder thine arme holes.

(AV Put now these old cast clouts and rotten rags under thine armholes under the cords.)

<from…well, you’ve beaten me to it, arm + hole.


Clearly, shaving your armpits can make you as epicene as this Perseus. By Eugène Romain Thirion (French, 1839–1910).

B armpit – before 1333 (Edward II’s son Edward III on the throne of England; David II on the throne of Scotland)

?c1450   in G. Müller Aus Mittelengl. Medizintexten (1929) 32 (MED)   Þe stynkynge breth of mannys armpittis.

(Note that breth here has its old meaning of “odour, smell”.)

<arm + pit.

C oxter c. 1420 – (James I on Scottish throne; Henry V on English throne)

1914   J. Joyce Dubliners 206   Many a good man went to the penny-a-week school with a sod of turf under his oxter.

<from Old English ōxtaōhsta, perhaps influenced by Nordic words.

D assel(e) ?c. 1450) – (Henry VI, endower of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge; James II, Scotland)

Merlin 116   The speres on their asseles, theire sheldes be-fore her bristes. [Cf. Joinv. in Littré ‘le glaive dessous s’essele et l’escu devant li’.]

OED marks “obsolete, rare”.

<“Old French essele (modern aisselle) < Latin axilla armpit; or, for earlier English axleeaxleexle, shoulder, between which and the Old French there was an early confusion.”

E okselle 1489 – marked “rare” in the OED, so where else it occurs, I don’t know.

(Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, on English throne; his son-in-law to be, James IV, rex scottorum)

1489   Caxton tr. C. de Pisan Bk. Fayttes of Armes ii. xxxv. 150   He dide putte two grete boteylles vndre his okselles and swymed..in the see.

OED marks “obsolete, rare”. This is a bit of an oddity. The OED says it comes from

“Apparently <Middle Dutch ocsele, oxel, oxele (Dutch oksel , Dutch regional (West Flemish) oksele )” but also points out that in the citation shown above it translates Middle French esselles , plural of esselle, i.e. the French at the time for “armpits”.

F wings 1586 – (Elizabeth I on English throne, Shakespeare 22 years old; James VI on Scottish throne)

1586   T. Bowes tr. P. de la Primaudaye French Acad. I. 499   He tooke hir with both his armes by the wings [Fr. les aisselles].

This is what is known as a “nonce” use, which means it was specially “created” for the context shown.

<“from wing, which is Middle English, first in plural forms wengewengenwenges; Old Norse vængir”

Since the Latin ala means both “wing” and “armpit”, I wonder if the 1586 writer was also influenced by that fact.

G axilla 1616 – (James VI now also on English throne as James I)

This is the first appearance of what is now the standard medical/anatomical term, from Latin, and part of the huge seventeenth-century influx into English of Latinisms.

A. Read Εωματογραϕία Ανθρωπίη 152 The backe part of the shoulder top, called axilla

<”Latin, = armpit; diminutive of *axula, whence āla: compare axle n.1 Common in late Latin in form ascella.”

H enmontery1655 (No monarch was on the throne; the interregnum)

Fuller Church-hist. Brit.x. 87   He was shot through the Enmontery of the left Arm.

The OED says this word = emunctory, which means “of or pertaining to blowing of the nose.” Quite how that relates to armpits I really don’t know, and am afraid to surmise.

<French émonctoire, < modern Latin ēmunctōrius.

And penultimately, this newcomer or upstart:

I underarm – 1933 (George V King of Great Britain and Emperor of India)

1933 Southwestern Reporter 331 427/1   An extensive scar remained upon her right breast, underarm and back.

1966   in G. N. Leech Eng. in Advertising xv. 138   Veet ‘O’ leaves skin satin-soft, makes underarms immaculate, arms and legs fuzz-free.

1981   M. Angelou Heart of Woman viii. 111   I had to get away from the man’s electricity… My underarms tingled and my stomach contents fell to my groin.

Mmm. Perhaps male body-shaving is not such a bad idea after all. I feel faintly queasy, I confess.

However, as English has a habit of castrating words, we next get to…

J pit – 1955 (Queenie, as she is affectionately known by some, on the throne)

1955   J. P. Donleavy Ginger Man xvii. 205   No fuss. No excuses. Fine person. Am I smelling? Sniff a pit. Little musty. Can’t have everything.

1973   M. Amis Rachel Papers 71   Complete body-service..pits clipped, toes manicured, pubic hair permed and styled, each tooth brushed, tongue scraped, nose pruned.

This is slangy and is a clipping (ouch) of armpit to pit.

<The word pit Is described by the OED as from “common Germanic”, and the OED points to similar words in Dutch, German (Pfütze), Old Icelandic, Swedish and Danish, < a Germanic base, apparently < classical Latin puteus well, pit, shaft, of unknown origin.

Ten “synonyms” in all.


Now, I can see that talking about a bit of your body and including the word pit might put the squeamish off. (The modern cosmetics industry has loadza dosh to gain by deterring people from accepting their own humble corporeality.) Perhaps there are too many negative connotations attaching to pit, such as “it’s the pits” and “the armpit of the universe”, both originally U.S. Perhaps that explains the progression towards underarms. If you take a word like armpit and make it unsavoury not only literally but metaphorically, then you have to find a euphemism to replace it. Enter underarm.

In support of that contention, your honour, I submit that if you look at contemporary citations for the armpit vs underarm you will find that the words associated with them are generally not the same.

From looking at vast amounts of 2014 data, the following patterns struck me.

Adjective + noun: Only armpits are sweaty, unshaven or unshaved, smelly, stinking or rancid.

(Because, you see, to become an underarm you have to be clean and odourless!)

Both armpits and underarms can be hairy, but the first outnumber the second almost 10 to 1, and hairy underarms only afflict non-British speakers.

Verb + noun, noun + verb: armpits are the object or subject of many verbs, such as sniff, nuzzle, scratch, and smell. For shave, armpits again outnumber underarms 10 to 1, suggesting that underarms are mainly already shaved. And wash only applies to armpits. Which implies, well, you know…

Need I go on?

At this point, I’ll sign off wondering how long the phrase “That will put hairs on your chest” will survive if this trend continues.

And I’ll note one version of an old Spanish proverbial ditty that is at variance with the “Love Island effect.”
El hombre y el oso,
cuanto más peludo, más hermoso
.

Men and bears,
The hairier they are, the more beautiful they are.

(The “canonical” version runs, El hombre y el oso,
cuanto más feo, más hermoso,
…the uglier they are, the more beautiful)

Even Andromeda managed to shave her pits, despite being chained to a rock. Amazing the lengths some women will go to to look good. I suppose she didn’t want to put Perseus off. Judging by his position, he’ll stop at nothing to double-check. Titian, 1554-1556.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

5 thoughts on “You say underarm, I say armpit. Or oxter. Or…?

  1. I quite like the look of the hairy gentleman. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    Queenie… now what disrespect to Mrs Saxe Coburg Gotha. We are not amused.

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  2. While generally speaking I use a loose form of standard English, oxters is one non-standard term I use quite often. Have you ever heard of oxter-cogging? It means to hold somebody up by putting your arms under their oxters, usually because they’re too drunk to stand. Sorry for being an ethnic stereotype but there you are …

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  3. Hi, thanks for reading and for the comment. Yes, I had heard of it – possibly from you! I didn’t mention Irish use of “oxters” as I couldn’t be sure of geographical spread. Perhaps you can fill me in.

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  4. It’s very common here, and not just in the black north. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed oxter-cogging on line. Must have been some other drunk …

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