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TWTS: Unless we’re talking hair, style gets cramped, not crimped

No one likes to have their style cramped, but what about having it crimped? Keep in mind, we’re not talking about hair styles, so don’t bother rummaging around for that old crimping iron quite yet.

Obviously, neither option is desirable. Historically speaking though, most of us prefer “cramp” to “crimp” when we say, “Don’t cramp my style.” However, since there’s some occasional confusion over these two similar-sounding verbs, we decided to unpack them.

Also, a listener asked us to, and we love our listeners.

“Cramp” started off as a noun in the 1500s. It referred to a metal bar used to hold together two pieces of masonry, also known as a “cramp iron.” Later on, “cramp” became a verb that meant “to compress with irons” as a form of torture or punishment.

There were also figurative meanings of “cramp.” It could mean “to restrict or confine” in a physical sense. This is why we say things like, “It’s cramped in here.” It could also refer to being restricted in terms of your possible actions, which is where “cramp my style” comes from.

“Crimp” shows up in English as a verb in the 1700s. It referred to making waves or curls in hair with a hot iron, a meaning with which any woman who came of age in the 1980s can identify. It could also mean to compress into small ridges or folds, such as what a baker does to the edge of a pie crust.

By the mid-1700s, “crimp” could mean “to restrict or interfere with,” as in, “A shoulder injury has crimped his football career.” It could also be used as a noun, referring to a crease or fold in something, such as a crimp in a hose that’s preventing water from coming out.

The noun form of “crimp” showed up in the late 1800s and referred to an element that interferes or restricts. That is, an element that “cramps.” It’s not hard to see why there might be a little confusion over these two similar-sounding terms. Don’t let that cramp your style though.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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