polo-necks and turtlenecks

Following up on the recent jumper/sweater post, I should answer a question from Linda, who wrote months and months ago to ask:
I was wondering whether a turtleneck is the strict equivalent of a poloneck? I seem to have a vague recollection when I was younger that a turtleneck in the UK was slightly lower and the turnover was sewn together, as opposed to you actually rolling it over yourself, but I may be wrong and things may have changed.
The trick here is that both AmE and BrE have the term turtle(-)neck, but it means something slightly different in the two dialects. Turtleneck was originally AmE, and, like many compounds, it is these days more likely in BrE than in AmE to have a hyphen or be spelt as two words. AmE turtleneck is a close, high neck of a garment that is typically folded over (although when I was a teen, the [orig. and chiefly AmE] preppy fashion was to not fold, but to let them appear squashed under the chin). In BrE, such a thing is called polo-neck. So, AmE turtleneck = BrE polo-neck. But BrE turtle-neck is (according to the OED):
A close-fitting roll or band collar, now usu. one intermediate in height between a crew-neck and a polo-neck; formerly also = polo-neck.
So, BrE turtle-neck is sometimes used to refer to things that I'd call roll-neck in AmE, and sometimes to things that I'd call (AmE) mock turtlenecks (photo here). But roll-neck seems to provide other problems--which may be dialectal, or just idiolectal (individual). I'd only use it for something that has a neck that has no border (knitters will have to remind me what to call these things)--it's just knit-purled and finished off, and because there's nothing to stop it doing so, it rolls tightly in on itself--as in this photo. But a lot of people seem to be using it to mean a thicker, looser (but not really loose) turtle/polo-neck (not quite a cowl-neck--see below).

Now, I expect that lots of BrE speakers* will comment that they use polo-neck for any of these things--and the OED definition covers that possibility. It may also be the case that the omnipresence of US chain retailers may have also more recently re-introduced the AmE meaning for turtleneck. I don't imagine that one hears polo-neck much in AmE for high necklines, though. When I first heard it here, it misled me, since I assumed that a polo-neck would surely be the type of collar that one would find on a polo shirt--a term that is found in both AmE and BrE for meaning (a) below, but with an additional meaning (b) in BrE:
polo shirt n. (a) a shirt of the kind worn by polo players; (hence) a short-sleeved casual shirt with a collar and buttons at the neck. (b) a shirt with a polo neck. (OED 2007 draft entry)
Finally, while the OED doesn't record it (yet), the term cowl-neck describes necklines that are tall and folded-over like a turtle/polo-neck, but which are wide enough that they flop over, rather than covering the neck closely. Now, although I can find cowl-necks on UK sites nowadays, I don't know how far back this term goes in BrE, since it is in AmE dictionaries (Merriam-Webster, American Heritage), but not in the Oxford ones (I'm not at the office with my bigger dictionary collection). So, BrE-speaking women who wore floppy high-necked jumpers/sweaters in the 1970s, what did you call them?

*Don't forget that no one can hear your accent when you type a comment. It's helpful if you always identify your dialect or homeland, or else comments like "well, I always say xyz" aren't very enlightening! (I may have come to know where you're from, but occasional readers won't have.)


  1. Do you have Shetland sweaters in the States? (as in:-

  2. That edging that prevents knitted things from rolling is called ribbing (in AmE anyway!)

  3. *grins* dearieme - the shop you link is an American shop :)

  4. Thanks, cathy. The word had completely escaped me...

  5. Blow me. (In the British sense.)

  6. I'm so glad you said 'in the British sense'!

    (As in Well, blow me down!.)

  7. I live in Australia and I've never heard these things called anything but skivvies.

  8. Which things, Troy? The necklines or the entire garments?

    World Wide Words has an article on skivvies, which seems to imply that it's the whole garment. Are there words for the necklines?

  9. One question for both AmE speakers and BrE speakers is what defines a "Golf Shirt"?
    Generally, I would call what is described in the post as a Polo Shirt as a Golf Shirt. Particularly because it has short sleeves. One with long sleeves is generally a "rugby shirt".
    Polo shirt is generally used over here as well, but is it a regional thing? Or a personal preference to use Golf Shirt? (Google golf shirt and you get a lot of things saying Golf/Polo)

  10. A skivvy is the whole garment. I never even knew that word had other meanings until I followed your link.

  11. Yes - in the UK we usually use "polo neck" for one that can be folded over and "turtleneck" for one that is shorter, and you wouldn't fold it over.

    See for example
    which is a bit like a "grandad-style" collar - do they have these in the US too?

    Or for example

    which can also be called roll-neck tops.

    Thanks for the useful article which I used to check my own nomenclature!

  12. Hi from Australia :)

    I grew up in the '70s and a long sleeved T-shirt with a high, rolled collar was called a skivvy.

    Most of us suffered them as part of our school uniforms ( yellow, sky blue or white the most popular colours chosen by those who decide on uniform policy ).

    Later ( late '80s ) it came to describe a thin or lightweight knit sweater with the same collar.

    As for poloneck; it sometimes is used, but for the vast majority, " turtleneck " is what is referred to as a high, snug fitting roll over collar.

    Kind regards,

  13. I'm Zimbabwean/South African and I've never heard of a skivvy being anything other than a person who does menial tasks, like a 'go-for'person, never used for clothing. We'd understand both polo and turtlenecks as pretty much being the same thing, with or without hyphens. Turtlenecks would be the fuller, usually heavier i.e. woollen fabric or actually knitted and not sewn down fold over neck and polo the shorter, folded over and maybe sewn down one in, usually, a more silky fabric. A roll-over would be just that, a neck that's rolled over - is a roll not a fold so probably more like what is also called a crew neck. A polo shirt - short sleeved shirt, with collar and two or three never used buttons - very preppy. Often worn by golfers or tennis players. A rugby shirt, long sleeved, actually used for the game of rugby, but we'd call it a rugby jersey. If a woman was wearing it, it would most likely be her father/brother/boyfriend's. What I actually came here for though was to ask what would a polo/turtleneck jersey/sweater have been called pre-20th Century, especially in the Victorian era - does anybody know?

  14. The first comment by Linda is exactly what I understand as an older English person. A polo neck folded over and a turtleneck was lower and stitched down - I quite agree Linda, never mind the Americans!!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)