image from Le Corset à travers les âges (The Corset through the ages – 1893), written by Ernest Léoty and illustrated by Saint-Elme Gautier
a social winged insect which has a narrow waist and a sting and is typically yellow with black stripes
Of Germanic origin, the noun wasp corresponds to German Wespe and Dutch wesp. Ultimately related to these Germanic nouns, Latin vespa is the origin of:
– Spanish avispa (The initial a- is after abeja, meaning bee.)
– Italian vespa (With a capital V, it is a proprietary name for an Italian make of motor scooter.)
– Portuguese vespa
– Romanian viespe
– French guêpe (The initial gu- for the Latin v- is due to the influence of the Germanic word; in French, the initial Germanic sound /w/ has become /g/ whereas it has been retained in English, so that guêpe corresponds to wasp, guerre to war, Galles to Wales, Gautier to Walter, etc. The circumflex accent ˆ on the first e of guêpe is a trace of the etymological s in Latin vespa.)
A wasp waist (une taille de guêpe in French) is a very slender waist, characteristic of a woman who laces tightly. The following from The Examiner (London) of Sunday 13th July 1828 shows the medical problems created by this fashion:
Monday.—The following letter, directed to Mr Hobler, was read aloud in the Justice-room, there being a person present on the part of the complainant.
“Sir,—I have rather an extraordinary sort of complaint to make to the Chief Magistrate; but although there exists no legal mode of counteracting the evil to which, through you, I beg to call his Lordship’s attention, the interference of a man of influence, from his station in life and his experience, may produce some alleviation of the mischief I am about to describe. I have three daughters, over whom their mother, I regret to say, exercises a control quite independent of me. This control, so far as it regards moral and religious restraints, is most unexceptionable. They go to chapel regularly, and are as rigid in their conversation as any females in the world. What I have to object to simply refers to their dress, and to but a very narrow portion of that. It is with a deep sense of self-abasement I state to you, Sir, that my wife encourages my children, by her example, to persist in following the hideous and perilous fashion, of which I entreat your most serious condemnation,—I mean the fashion of squeezing in the waist, until the body resembles that of a pismire or ant. (A laugh.) Of all the dandy abominations that ever received the sanction of our aristocracy, this is the worst. The least injurious effect of it is, that it fixes a deformity upon the human shape; and yet this effect, instead of working in the way that might be expected upon the vanity of the sex, seems to be the great charm and recommendation. The whole of the region upon which the stays press becomes, if we believe Mr Lawrence and other great authorities, diseased as well as distorted. The lungs and liver, and other parts of the viscera, are all screwed up together, and the stomach is totally divested of its power in regulating the system. My daughters are as yet living instances (God knows how long they may continue so) of the baneful consequences of this dreadful fashion. Would you believe it? their stays are bound with steel in the holes through which the laces are drawn, so as to be able to bear the tremendous tugging which is intended to reduce so important a part of the human frame to one-third of its natural proportions. They are unable to sit, walk, or stand as women used to do. To expect one of them to stoop would be absurd, and to witness the attempt alarming. My daughter Margaret made the experiment the other day, to satisfy me that she was quite loose. The effort was too much for the strength of the steel and whalebone vice with which she was enveloped. Her stays gave way with a tremendous explosion, and down she fell upon the ground, and I almost thought she had snapped in two. (Laughter.) But this, ridiculous as it was, was not the least advance towards remedy or abatement of the evil. My girls are always complaining of pains in the stomach, and lassitude, and if something be not done to stop this wasp-waist mania, rapid decay must follow. Hoping that the Lord Mayor and you, Sir, may excuse this liberty in consideration of the fatal nature of the grievance, and that some advice and admonition may be given to both mothers and daughters, I have the honour to remain your obedient humble servant.
“To F. Hobler, Esq.”
The Lord Mayor said he was sure that there was a fierce competition between the sexes in the article of tight waists, and if ladies and gentlemen were to cut themselves in two in the conflict, it would be no fault of his. (A laugh.) He did not see how it could be a breach of the peace. He was afraid that, if he objected to the fashion, the ladies would more pertinaciously adhere to it.