Chrysti the Wordsmith: Of Every Stripe

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You’d know exactly what I mean if I say that politicians of every stripe were in attendance, or that musicians of all stripes played at the festival. Why, when we categorize things or people, do we sometimes metaphorically put stripes on them?

To get to the heart of any expression, it’s always helpful to nail down its chronology. An early use of the term stripe as a synonym of “type” or “category” dates to May of 1854. It’s mentioned in that month’s Congressional Globe, which preserves the debates of the U.S. Congress. There we read, “Every member of the…party, of whatever shade or stripe, is perfectly honest.”

It’s tempting to associate this expression with, say, tigers or zebras. But we mustn’t, because these category stripes were inspired by the strips of cloth on British military badges and chevrons to indicate rank. An 1802 dictionary of English military history says, “The lance-corporal wears one ‘stripe’, the corporal two, and the sergeant three.” So, the British army literally had soldiers of every stripe.

Originally, then, the expression was intended to include military men of any rank. The phrase gradually expanded to include various affiliations, as in people of all religious stripes, or an example in any category at all, as in “she loves music of all stripes.”

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