Textile Idiom Series: “The Shirt Off His Back”

January 15th, 2024

Much of our everyday language—in the form of idioms, clichés, or metaphors—makes reference to textiles. Using these phrases, we weave stories, spin tales, and thread narratives. But where do these expressions come from, and what do they mean?

This week’s idiom describes a person so generous they would give you every last thing they have— even the shirt off their back. Idiom origins are actually fairly difficult to pinpoint exactly. Generally, we look for the oldest recorded use of the saying in print, which usually appears after the idiom has widespread use. “He would give you the shirt off his back” first appears in Tobias Smolett’s 1771 novel Humphrey Clinker, so it probably started circulating in the mid 1700s.

Side note: while we would never ask you for the shirt off your back, if you enjoy our bi monthly idioms, you can always donate to Tatter. Support our work and help our lowly idiom peddler continue to bring you entirely too much research on the origins of textile idioms!