In Mark Twain's short story "About Barbers" it says

He finished lathering, and then began to rub in the suds with his hand.

He now began to sharpen his razor on an old suspender, and was delayed a good deal on account of a controversy…

But Cambridge Dictionary says "a long piece of elastic that hangs down from a suspender belt and holds a stocking up" for suspender. I could not understand how to sharpen a razor on it. Is there an idiom for it?

  • 4
    There is a difference in AmE and BrE usage. In BrE a suspender holds up the stockings (underwear), and braces hold up the trousers (pants). Oct 13 '20 at 19:30
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    And in AmE a device which holds up a lady's stockings is called a garter. Since Mark Twain was an American, it would be better to use an American English dictionary (such as Merriam-Webster, at merriam-webster.com) when reading his works. This is especially true for words which refer to the everyday objects and features of the local environment. These include the names of foods, clothing, tools, the parts of an automobile, features of roads, and to some extent furniture.
    – David42
    Oct 13 '20 at 19:57
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    The critical point to understand is that they were leather straps in those days. (Which is precisely what you sharpen a blade on .. a strop.) You would "translate" this to "belt" these days - which are more obviously leather.
    – Fattie
    Oct 14 '20 at 15:00
  • 7
    While the reformatting of the question is useful, I think the insertion of "stocking suspender" rather than just "suspender" in the title is not. The literal answer to the title of the question now is, "It cannot."
    – David K
    Oct 15 '20 at 2:09
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    @Mari-LouA - I know. I was addressing the OP. Regardless of their misunderstanding, the title is misleading. The misunderstanding can be addressed in the text. Oct 16 '20 at 6:46

Nowadays a suspender (AmE) is elastic. In those days a suspender was likely to be a pair of leather straps that clipped onto your pants (AmE) and over your shoulders. They are still available, for people wanting to have an "old world cowboy" style.

enter image description here

You can sharpen a razor blade on leather. A razor needs to be sharpened very finely so the final honing stage is done with leather. The point of the quote is that the barber isn't using a dedicated sharpening strop, but is using a piece of leather that was designed for another purpose.

  • 8
    When you said strap did you mean strop?
    – The Photon
    Oct 13 '20 at 23:02
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    In reality it's not a sharpening process but rather an edge straightening - similar to a butcher using a steel on a knife.
    – Trunk
    Oct 14 '20 at 12:02
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    And I always thought "stroppy" and "strop" were slang meaning someone with a negative attitude, bad tempered and unwilling to cooperate. Who knew it was a wide leather strip.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 14 '20 at 13:20
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    The edit is wrong. There's no such thing as a "dedicated sharpening strop". It would be like saying "turning it with, a dedicated screwdriver". You can say "turning it with, a dedicated tool" (meaning a screwdriver) but "a dedicated screwdriver" is wrong. The sentence should read "a dedicated sharpening strap", or, "a strop".
    – Fattie
    Oct 14 '20 at 15:10
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    @Fattie: Why do you claim “a dedicated sharpening stop” or “a dedicated screwdriver” is wrong? “He unscrewed it with the edge of a dime, instead of a dedicated screwdriver.” It’s redundant, certainly, but not wrong — pleonasm for emphasis is a classic rhetorical device. At most, it is arguably bad style; but at least to my ear, this is exactly the kind of example where it works well and serves a genuine purpose, pointing up the relevant aspect of the strop/strap distinction.
    – PLL
    Oct 15 '20 at 13:17

This is tricky even for a native speaker, as it depends on knowing how straight razors are used. It used to be common to go to a barber to get a shave with a straight razor. Now most people use disposable razors, and so knowing how to sharpen a razor is no longer common knowledge.

As the final step of sharpening a razor, a strop is used to polish and straighten the edge:

enter image description here
Dr.K. 15:35, 4 November 2007 (UTC) / CC BY-SA

A strop is often leather, sometimes with a little abrasive on it. Since a razor must be very sharp to cut hair, it is usually stropped before every shave.

Suspenders may be elastic like your dictionary says, but in the time of the story, probably leather was more common. Also suspenders may not hold up only stockings, but also pants. For American English (all Twain stories will use American English) "suspenders" will mean something holding up pants, like these modern leather suspenders from Colonel Littleton:

enter image description here

The leather straps from suspenders like this could be made into a strop, and that's what the barber was doing.

  • 1
    I don't think the leather braces shown in your photo are functional. 1. They look slack 2. The wearer has an adequate recess above his pelvic girdle to provide a "hold" for his pants without any braces. 3. Guys needing braces for trousers support need a degree of elastication on the braces so that their nuts are not cut in half while their pants is still high enough. Leather without any elastic section will not allow this.
    – Trunk
    Oct 15 '20 at 16:34
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    @Trunk Good points, I'll notify Colonel Littleton.
    – Phil Frost
    Oct 15 '20 at 16:43
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    His needs were few, his room was bare: / A lavabo and a fancy chair / A mug of suds and a leather strop / An apron, a towel, a pail and a mop / For neatness he deserved a nod / Did Sweeney Todd / The demon barber of Fleet Street
    – choster
    Oct 15 '20 at 17:56

This is the Cambridge entry for suspender:

suspender noun
UK /səˈspen.dər/ US /səˈspen.dɚ/
[ C ] UK
(US garter)
a long piece of elastic that hangs down from a suspender belt and holds a stocking up suspenders [ plural ]
US (UK braces) a pair of narrow straps that stretch from the front of the trousers over your shoulders to the back to hold them up

I've bolded the important parts. The "US garter" says that this is not the meaning in the US; this meaning is referred to as a garter in the US. The last part tells you what the word means in the US. It's important to pay attention to notes on regional variations such as these, and not stop reading after just one meaning has been given. If one meaning doesn't seem to fit a passage, you should see whether there are alternative meanings, paying especial attention to meanings for the region in which the work was written.

  • 2
    Even if I knew that (US) suspenders were the same as (UK) braces, I wouldn't have known two things: 1. That suspenders used to be made of leather. Who knew? My father, class 1924, wore elastic braces with metal clips 2. That people used to sharpen a blade on a leather strap. I thought it was either stone/whetstone, honing steel/butcher's steel or a grinding wheel
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 14 '20 at 13:13
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    @Mari-LouA You can probably find a movie western with a barbershop scene where the barber sharpens his razor on a leather strap.
    – Barmar
    Oct 14 '20 at 14:27
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    @Barmar My dad’s barber included a straight razor shave with every haircut, and he used a leather strop too. But it is definitely less common since the advent of the disposable safety razor people can use at home.
    – StephenS
    Oct 14 '20 at 15:07
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    Since AIDS, barbers only use razors with disposable blades, so sharpening "fixed blade" razors is now obsolete. Sharpening precision cutting tools on leather is still common - whetstones or grinding wheels are too abrasive. A stone is good enough to sharpen a scythe, but not a scalpel.
    – alephzero
    Oct 14 '20 at 15:50
  • 1
    @alephzero source? There are some shops around where I live that have straight razor shaves. (Pretty rare yes, but the practice isn't gone)
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 15 '20 at 16:32

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