When I first encountered the coat of arms term, I failed to understand it correctly, trying literal meanings:

coat - an outer garment with sleeves, worn outdoors and typically extending below the hips

arms - multiple for: each of the two upper limbs of the human body from the shoulder to the hand

Then I finally got the meaning best depicted by:

How did the term originate?

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    I'm not really an expert, but coat means also "something that covers" (shields?), and arms means also weapons (I'm pretty sure that's the case). "it depict weapons and covers something else"
    – drM.
    Mar 3, 2016 at 14:46
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    @choster Etymological questions per se yes, but this one would have to be edited if the mods migrate it, or I'm afraid the ELU community will frown upon the single definition of 'arms' as plural of 'arm' and the OP not considering other homonyms.
    – Lucky
    Mar 3, 2016 at 15:00
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because, as noted, it's about etymology of a somewhat archaic phrase. Mar 3, 2016 at 21:14
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    @NathanTuggy: eh? "Coat of arms" is still a going concern for many people, there's nothing archaic about it.
    – Martha
    Mar 3, 2016 at 22:07
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    I also don't think this is an etymology question, really: it's a learner encountering an unknown phrase and trying to parse it literally, with amusing but predictable results. My boss gets hung up on idioms the same way: he tries to interpret them literally, is told the (non-literal) actual meaning, and then goes off on a rant about the nonsensicalness of English.
    – Martha
    Mar 3, 2016 at 22:09

1 Answer 1


'Arms' here derives from the use of the word for the tools—the weapons and armor—of an armed man. This term was extended to the design a warrior painted on his shield and the crest he displayed on his helmet so he could be identified by his peers and followers in battle; arms in this sense thus came to proclaim a man's status as a member of the dominant military class; arms soon became hereditary and thus declared not only his personal identity but his lineage.

On ceremonial occasions an 'armiger'—a man entitled to bear hereditary arms—wore over his ordinary dress a garment which displayed his arms; this 'coat of arms' eventually became the term for any full display of arms, including not only the designs on the shield and crest but also ancillary symbols of his family and rank, such as 'supporters' (the falcons in your image) and a slogan.

For those who enjoy the ancient craft, here's my own blazon of the arms of Ghana depicted in OP's illustration. I take the cross to be the principal charge on an unvaried field, but there's room for argument there.

Azure, on a cross vert fimbriated or, a lion passant gardant or; in dexter chief, an asante sword and an oykeame staff or in saltire; in sinister chief, on a rock or emerging from a ocean barry wavy argent and azure, Osu Castle argent windowed and gated gules; in dexter base, on a hillock vert a cacao tree proper; in sinister base, on a hillock vert a gold mine proper. For a crest, on a wreath gules vert and or, a mullet of five points sable fimbriated or. For supporters, two tawny eagles or rousant with wings addorsed; about the neck of each, on a riband gules vert and or, a mullet of five points sable fimbriated or. For a motto, gules on a scroll or, Freedom and Justice.

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    I believe this coat was called a 'surcoat' because it went sur=over the armour. This in turn gave rise to the term 'surname'.
    – peterG
    Mar 3, 2016 at 21:46
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    The picture in the question is a full achievement of arms. The stripy thing above the shield is the torse, and the star above it is the crest (so when people talk of "the family crest", they're spewing utter nonsense). The birds are the supporters, and there's a motto on a ribbon below the shield.
    – Martha
    Mar 3, 2016 at 22:13
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    @Martha And the grassy knoll the shield stands on is a compartment. More heraldic fun: a contracted form of achievement is hatchment, although this is usually reserved for a display on a lozenge-shaped funerary plaque. The oldest term is blazon, originally a shield; this term is also used for the technical description of an achievement. Mar 4, 2016 at 1:08
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    @StoneyB: I couldn't remember the word "compartment", which is why I omitted it. IME hatchment is also the black-and-white encoding of the tinctures, e.g. horizontal lines = azure and vertical lines = gules (or is that the other way around?). Oh, and blazon is the words, emblazon is the picture. And all this talk of heraldry reminds me, I've got a scroll assignment that I need to reply to...
    – Martha
    Mar 4, 2016 at 1:34
  • @Martha: It's been a long time since I did this - I'd appreciate your comments on my addition. Mar 4, 2016 at 19:03

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