Posted by: episystechpubs | September 14, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Plaid and Tartan

The other day I received an unusual request for the Editor’s Corner. It wasn’t for “More etymologies, please!” or “Can you explain the difference between affect and effect?” Nope. This request was, “More Scots, please.” Well, I think I’ve covered the spelling difference of whiskey and whisky, and Ben talked about the words feck and couthie. But then came the answer to my prayers: an article from one of my favorite blogs (Grammarphobia) about plaids and tartans! Here’s a taste of the article for you, along with some photos to brighten your day. (Note: the spelling from the UK dictionaries is British spelling, not American spelling.)

Q: What is the difference between “plaid” and “tartan”? I’ve found many answers online, but they’re not consistent. Can you help?

A: We can see why you’re confused. The terms “plaid” and “tartan” are often used interchangeably, and the definitions in standard dictionaries differ in one way or another…

Despite their differences, dictionaries in both the US and the UK generally describe “plaid” as a pattern or fabric with a crisscross motif that includes “tartan” designs associated with Scotland.

Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, broadly defines “plaid” (the fabric) as “Chequered or tartan twilled cloth, typically made of wool.”

Oxford defines “tartan” more precisely as “a woollen cloth woven in one of several patterns of coloured checks and intersecting lines, especially of a design associated with a particular Scottish clan.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “plaid” broadly as “a pattern on cloth of stripes with different widths that cross each other to form squares.”

But Merriam-Webster’s defines “tartan” more narrowly as “a traditional Scottish cloth pattern of stripes in different colors and widths that cross each other to form squares.”

For even more information on plaids and tartans, see Grammarphobia. For an official registry of Scottish tartans, see The Scottish Register of Tartans.

Select Scottish Tartans

One of the Fraser clan tartans

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


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