Lexical Investigations: Balaclava

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


Balaclavas and cardigans have more in common than keeping you warm—they both owe their names to the Crimean War. During the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, British troops were underprepared for the cold Ukrainian winter, and unlike their French counterparts, who were allowed to wear as many layers as required to stay warm, the British were expected to adhere to their uniforms. The poor conditions caused a scandal in Britain and motivated civilians to donate money and knit warm clothing for the troops using government-issued patterns and regulation yarn, including a wool cap to be worn under their helmets. The British referred to these caps as Balaclava helmets, and later just called them balaclavas. Troops were also issued button-down woolen jackets, which were named after the Lord of Cardigan, who led their ill-fated charge known as the Light Brigade against the Russians.

Popular References:Balaclava, Movie (1928)

“Balaclava,” The Arctic Monkeys, CD (2007)

Relevant Quotations:

“Report says, these ill-clothed warriors did not cover themselves with glory in the Crimean war, and that on one occasion, during the attack on Balaclava, having more discretion than valour, they did not wait for the Russians, but retired hastily to the town again, where the women and camp followers, with a sad want of appreciation, gave them such a smart trouncing that the unfortunate Tunisians almost regretted not having kept the field.”

Hunt’s Yachting Magazine, Vol 19 (1870)

“Mlle Riego gave a crochet receipt for it in her 1854 booklet, but did not call it ‘balaclava’ and gave no directions for knitting it.”

—Richard Rutt, A History of Hand Knitting (1987)

“In the first winter of the Crimean War, British women read reports that their men were dying by the hundreds of exposure to the cold. They began knitting close-fitting covers that left only the eyes expose, then sent the packages to ‘Balaclava.’”

—Andrew Evans and Marc Di Duca, Ukraine (2010)

Sources:The Crimean War: A History, By Orlando Figes. Macmillan, April 12, 2011, pg 304.Look and Learn. Issue Number 915. Published on August 4, 1979.

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