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Definition: A broad-sleeved, loose-fitting over-garment/vestment worn by clergy and choristers in many Christian churches

Pronunciation: Sur-plus

Origin: Late 13th century. From Latin superpellicum, meaning ‘outer pelt’.

Why this word?

A recently delayed meeting left me with a few hours to kill in the Irish city of Limerick. In order to get out of the rain, I decided to spend some time as a tourist wandering around the austere and fascinating 12th century St. Mary’s Cathedral. While inside, I noticed a very old framed document – a list of ‘rules’ for the clergy and choristers when attending a service. Rather fascinatingly, it decreed that all must be ‘appropriately habited in surplices’.

Not having any idea what that meant, I did a little research – and figured that a word related to Christian symbolism would prove topical with the recent trading of a surplice for a papal Fanon by a Argentinian cleric.

Rather interestingly – it seems that the surplice itself may be pre-Christian – Celtc alb – a liturgical vestment. The first known example of a surplice appears in a 5th century mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale in the late capital city of the Roman empire, Ravenna.

How and when to use this word in a sentence:

Unless you are a surplice salesperson, this is not one for every day use. Instead, it should be reserved for situations where you see it and get to say “Did you know that the white outer garment the priest is wearing is called a surplice?”


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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