Surplus and Surplice

By Maeve Maddox

The fashion term “surplice neckline” recently came to my attention. The term applies to a diagonally crossed neckline that creates a deep v-shaped neckline. The surplice style is thought of as a “faux wrap,” a cross-over design that makes the garment look as if it is wrapped around the wearer. Unlike a wrap-around garment, the faux wrap is sewn in place. Perhaps it is this “extra” piece of cloth that causes some advertisers to misspell surplice as surplus:

Dress like a goddess in this gorgeous gown made in sheer chiffon and designed with a surplus neckline

Emily West Girls Surplus Neckline Floral Dress

Get Deals Arden B. Women’s Lace Back Surplus Neckline Tank

Julian Taylor Women’s Printed Surplus Neckline Dress

surplus: more than sufficient; extra

Before I learned the fashion term, my only acquaintance with the word surplice was the wide-sleeved white ecclesiastical garment worn by priests and altar boys over a cassock.

The earliest documentation for the noun surplice in the OED is from a manuscript dated c1290. The word entered English from Anglo-Norman surpliz, which derived from medieval Latin superpellicium. By 1382, the word could also mean any “ample or enveloping” garment.

The literal meaning of the Latin word was “over the fur garment.” In winter, medieval churches were cold and drafty. Apparently the priest bundled up in a practical fur tunic or robe and wore the priestly garment over it.

Finally, surplice and surplus, are pronounced differently:

surplice [SUR-pliss]
surplus [SUR-plus]

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1 Response to “Surplus and Surplice”

  • Glenn

    I’m an Anglican (Church of England/Episcopalian) Priest. The reason for the surplice has long been lost on our colleagues. The history you’ve provided is fascinating. I knew that in early Australian white history the priest would ride on horseback in his cassock. Having been made all dusty and muddy, the local church was required to provide a surplice to cover his muddy cassock.

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