Why is a "coat of arms" called so?



When I first encountered the coat of arms term, I failed to understand it correctly, trying literal meanings:

coat - an outer garment with sleeves, worn outdoors and typically extending below the hips

arms - multiple for: each of the two upper limbs of the human body from the shoulder to the hand

Then I finally got the meaning best depicted by:

How did the term originate?

Denis Kulagin

Posted 2016-03-03T14:42:52.640

Reputation: 2 343

Question was closed 2016-03-04T12:34:05.620

4I'm not really an expert, but coat means also "something that covers" (shields?), and arms means also weapons (I'm pretty sure that's the case). "it depict weapons and covers something else" – drM. – 2016-03-03T14:46:45.193


It makes more sense if you consider definition 2 of arms in ODO.

– Lucky – 2016-03-03T14:52:49.573


Per the Help Center page concerning what is on-topic here, questions about etymology are better suited to our sister site for English Language & Usage. I have asked a moderator to have a look.

– choster – 2016-03-03T14:52:49.987

3@choster Etymological questions per se yes, but this one would have to be edited if the mods migrate it, or I'm afraid the ELU community will frown upon the single definition of 'arms' as plural of 'arm' and the OP not considering other homonyms. – Lucky – 2016-03-03T15:00:42.840

1@Lucky -- huh - that definition kinda makes you think of any company's branding (insignia) applied to stationery, padfolios, coffee cups, etc (essentially the weapons and shields for modern corporate warriors) – Code Jockey – 2016-03-03T19:35:44.623

3I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because, as noted, it's about etymology of a somewhat archaic phrase. – Nathan Tuggy – 2016-03-03T21:14:21.660

2@NathanTuggy: eh? "Coat of arms" is still a going concern for many people, there's nothing archaic about it. – Martha – 2016-03-03T22:07:10.890

4I also don't think this is an etymology question, really: it's a learner encountering an unknown phrase and trying to parse it literally, with amusing but predictable results. My boss gets hung up on idioms the same way: he tries to interpret them literally, is told the (non-literal) actual meaning, and then goes off on a rant about the nonsensicalness of English. – Martha – 2016-03-03T22:09:47.513

@Martha: It's clear that they already understand the meaning; they're asking about the origin. And that's not on-topic here. – Nathan Tuggy – 2016-03-03T22:17:18.183

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because etymology is specifically stated as off-topic in the help center

– ColleenV – 2016-03-04T00:04:10.320

2This discussion is all very interesting, and the etymology aspects would be better off on ELU, but, and I don't want to insult anybody, but if the question arose from the OP simply not realising that both "coat" and "arm" can mean different things than the definitions mentioned, I don't think it belongs on ELU. – Mr Lister – 2016-03-04T08:50:49.520

@MrLister No offence taken! – Denis Kulagin – 2016-03-04T09:09:50.567



'Arms' here derives from the use of the word for the tools—the weapons and armor—of an armed man. This term was extended to the design a warrior painted on his shield and the crest he displayed on his helmet so he could be identified by his peers and followers in battle; arms in this sense thus came to proclaim a man's status as a member of the dominant military class; arms soon became hereditary and thus declared not only his personal identity but his lineage.

On ceremonial occasions an 'armiger'—a man entitled to bear hereditary arms—wore over his ordinary dress a garment which displayed his arms; this 'coat of arms' eventually became the term for any full display of arms, including not only the designs on the shield and crest but also ancillary symbols of his family and rank, such as 'supporters' (the falcons in your image) and a slogan.

For those who enjoy the ancient craft, here's my own blazon of the arms of Ghana depicted in OP's illustration. I take the cross to be the principal charge on an unvaried field, but there's room for argument there.

Azure, on a cross vert fimbriated or, a lion passant gardant or; in dexter chief, an asante sword and an oykeame staff or in saltire; in sinister chief, on a rock or emerging from a ocean barry wavy argent and azure, Osu Castle argent windowed and gated gules; in dexter base, on a hillock vert a cacao tree proper; in sinister base, on a hillock vert a gold mine proper. For a crest, on a wreath gules vert and or, a mullet of five points sable fimbriated or. For supporters, two tawny eagles or rousant with wings addorsed; about the neck of each, on a riband gules vert and or, a mullet of five points sable fimbriated or. For a motto, gules on a scroll or, Freedom and Justice.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2016-03-03T14:42:52.640

Reputation: 176 469

1I believe this coat was called a 'surcoat' because it went sur=over the armour. This in turn gave rise to the term 'surname'. – peterG – 2016-03-03T21:46:25.717

2The picture in the question is a full achievement of arms. The stripy thing above the shield is the torse, and the star above it is the crest (so when people talk of "the family crest", they're spewing utter nonsense). The birds are the supporters, and there's a motto on a ribbon below the shield. – Martha – 2016-03-03T22:13:28.203

2@Martha And the grassy knoll the shield stands on is a compartment. More heraldic fun: a contracted form of achievement is hatchment, although this is usually reserved for a display on a lozenge-shaped funerary plaque. The oldest term is blazon, originally a shield; this term is also used for the technical description of an achievement. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-03-04T01:08:23.180

2@StoneyB: I couldn't remember the word "compartment", which is why I omitted it. IME hatchment is also the black-and-white encoding of the tinctures, e.g. horizontal lines = azure and vertical lines = gules (or is that the other way around?). Oh, and blazon is the words, emblazon is the picture. And all this talk of heraldry reminds me, I've got a scroll assignment that I need to reply to... – Martha – 2016-03-04T01:34:59.810

@Martha: It's been a long time since I did this - I'd appreciate your comments on my addition. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-03-04T19:03:16.160

@StoneyB: looks good to me, although I'd quibble that that looks like a generic castle and tree, regardless of the owner's intent of it being a specific castle and tree. Also, as an artist, I'd have no idea what "a gold mine proper" looks like. But then again, mostly I deal with pre-17th century heraldry and/or modern heraldry that tries to emulate pre-17th century heraldry. – Martha – 2016-03-04T19:15:52.887

@Martha I thought of "a castle with a single turret"; but I was trying to preserve the designer's description.

– StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-03-04T19:24:27.613