Wife beater or wifebeater

While the term wife beater has been in use for several hundred years, the idiom wife beater or wifebeater came into use in the twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, hit the nail on the head, kicked the bucket, blow off steam, piece of cake, hit the sack, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom wife beater or wifebeater, where it probably came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

The literal meaning of the term wife beater is someone who beats his female spouse. However, the idiomatic term wife beater or wifebeater refers to a certain item of clothing. A wife beater or wifebeater is a white, ribbed, sleeveless undershirt that men wear. The image is of a man who is too slovenly to wear a proper shirt. This particular undershirt was invented in the 1930s and was known as the A-shirt or athletic shirt. Prior to this invention, a man wore a one piece item known as a singlet. Today, many underwear manufacturers such as Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, and other companies manufacture form fitting, sleeveless t-shirt, ribbed tank, white tank top or muscle shirt undershirts. The idiom wife beater or wifebeater most probably had its origin in a newspaper article printed in the 1940s. The article reported on a man who had beaten his wife to death. The accompanying picture showed the criminal being led away in his bloody A-shirt. The appellation wife beater became synonymous with the undershirt. This idea was reinforced with Hollywood characters such as Stanley Kowalski, the role played by Marlon Brando in the film A Streetcar Named Desire. The idiom wife beater is rendered as two separate words by the Oxford English Dictionary, though other dictionaries render it as a closed compound word, wifebeater, or even a hyphenated compound word, wife-beater. Though the term wife beater or wifebeater became quite popular in the 1990s, the idiom seems to be falling out of favor. The stereotype of the lower-class man being the only type of person who will perpetrate violence against women has been proven a myth. Family violence, battered women, and domestic abuse are serious crimes that should not be glorified.


Caller reporting a white male, bald, wife beater t-shirt and sleeve tattoos checking the windows and looking in the residence. (The Athol Daily News)

Search for a white wife beater that would definitely show through the slightly see-through white button-up shirt that you will be sweating through all night. (The Daily Cardinal)

A black man in a wifebeater shirt is waving a brightly colored homemade poster that reads, “LATINOS FOR BERNIE.” (The Atlantic)

The annual “wet wifebeater” shirt contest will be held Saturday on the main stage, and Sunday’s events will include the annual Krispy Kreme Doughnut eating contest, a PBR drinking contest, an upright bass slapdown competition, and founder Dave Quick’s Rock n’ Roll Round-Up All Star Jam, as well as the return of Adam the First Real Man, a sideshow performer from Coney Island who performs various carnival stunts. (The Winston-Salem Journal)

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