The noun blanket is from Old Northern French and Anglo-Norman forms such as blankete and blanket, composed of blanc, white, and the diminutive suffix -ette, and meaning white woollen material, blanket cloth, and blanket.
(The Modern French word for blanket is couverture, meaning literally covering, from the verb couvrir, to cover. The term blanquette is mainly used to designate a dish consisting of white meat in a white sauce.)
The English noun blanket is first recorded in the sense of a white or undyed woollen material used for clothing. The Life and Martyrdom of Thomas Becket (circa 1300-25) contains the following verse:
Blak was his cope above: his curtel [= kirtle] whit blanket.
The sense covering of a bed is attested in The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, a 14th-century allegorical dream vision attributed to William Langland (circa 1325-circa 1390):
Cam no wyn in hus wombe · þorw þe weke longe,
Noþer blankett in hus bed · ne white bred by-fore hym.
No wine came to his stomach all week long,
Nor any blanket on his bed or white bread before him.
The expression to toss (someone) in a blanket, meaning to administer a rough irregular mode of punishment to (someone), is first recorded in The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth (around 1599), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616); Falstaff has just forced Pistol out of the Boar’s Head Tavern (Doll Tearsheet is a prostitute):
– Falstaff: A rascally Slaue, I will tosse the Rogue in a Blanket.
– Doll Tearsheet: Doe, if thou dar’st for thy heart: if thou doo’st, Ile cauuas thee betweene a paire of Sheetes.
The first known user of the phrase born on the wrong side of the blanket, said of an illegitimate child, is the Scottish author Tobias George Smollett (1721-71) in the epistolary novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). In a letter to Mary Jones, Winifred Jenkins, the maid of Tabitha Bramble, Matthew Bramble’s sister, explains that she wants to marry Humphry Clinker, who, it has just been discovered, is Matthew Bramble’s illegitimate son:
Why not strike while the iron is hot, and speak to the ’squire without loss of time?—What subjection can the ’squire make to our coming together?—Thof my father wan’t a gentleman, my mother was an honest woman—I did’n’t come on the wrong side of the blanket, girl— My parents were marred according to the rights of holy mother crutch, in the face of men and angles.
A blanket finish is a finish of a race in which the contestants are so close together that they could be covered with a blanket. The image is first recorded in the following from The Sporting Magazine; or, Monthly Calendar of the Transactions of the Turf, the Chase, and every other Diversion Interesting to the Man of Pleasure and Enterprize of April 1793:
Description of the Oatland Stakes run on Ascot Heath
The Great Oatland Stakes run over there on Tuesday the 28th of June, 1791.
The approaching season induces us to give our readers a description of this race [...]. Of the nineteen that started, the judge could only place the first four, for not only those, but four or five others, might have been nearly covered with a blanket.
The expression a wet blanket denotes a person or thing that throws a damper over anything, as a wet blanket smothers fire (cf. to throw cold water on). One of its earliest instances is found in Lawrie Todd; or, The Settlers in the Woods (1830), a novel of North American life by the Scottish author John Galt (1779-1839):
I then proposed, that the settlers themselves should elect one or two discreet members of our own community to act as magistrates, till the lawful time should come round for the election of a supervisor; and, after a good deal of practising in the old way on such occasions, I and that bodie John Waft were chosen. Little did I think, while I was so zealously exerting myself ‘pro bono publico’, that I was building a pedestal for the exaltation of him: I have never felt such a wet blanket before or since syne [= since then], as was thrown upon my pride, when I heard who had been elected my colleague.
In Dictionary of Americanisms: A glossary of words and phrases usually regarded as peculiar to the United States (1859 edition), John Russell Bartlett (1805-86), American ethnologist and historian, recorded the following:
– Blanket: A term used distinctively for the clothing of an Indian. To say of one’s father or mother that they “wore the blanket,” implies that they were but half civilized Indians. (Western)
– Blanket Indian: A wild Indian, whose principal article of dress is the blanket.
The expression on the blanket was applied to supporters of the Irish Republican cause held in the Maze prison, near Belfast, and elsewhere, who, from 1976 to 1981, wore blankets instead of prison clothes, as a form of protest against being treated as criminal rather than as political prisoners.