What’s the origin of using “toboggan” to mean a knit cap?

The word “toboggan” comes from the Micmac word for sled: topaĝan. As this tribal word was adopted into French-Canadian vocabulary, its modern-day spelling transformed. With these changes came other variations in meaning and application, some of which vary dramatically from region to region. Once a word predominantly centered in the northeast, topaĝan in the form of “toboggan” can now be heard around the world in its use for describing winter sleds.

Toboggans generally refer to long sleds used for recreational purposes in the winter. This definition accurately reflects the word topaĝan’s Micmac origin. However, as time progressed, the last century saw enough shifts in the English language to affect even the usage of a new word like toboggan. As those who ride toboggans must dress up warmly against the winter weather, resulting in the wearing of knit caps and other accessories, the word “toboggan” came to mean more than just a sled.

Today, should you travel different regions of North America, it is likely that you will find pockets where commonly used words have a completely different and uncommon use. For example, the word “toboggan”. Although unmistakably to describe the long and heavy sled used for recreation in the winter, “toboggan” has come to mean “knit cap” in other parts of the continent. This trend can be explained as a kind of metonymy that developed as knit caps were commonly worn while riding toboggans. However, the use of “toboggan” as a sled remains the most popular choice for North America.


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