Word Smith: Surplice

Serving mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore was an honor and a challenge in the early 1960’s. With the passing of Vatican 2, lots of rules seem to be loosening in the greater-wide Catholic Church. At the same time many things stayed the same. As Seymour Sarason is famous for saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” especially in education.

Before the hints of childhood molestation, everything was black and white, especially the outer clothing. Whether children were altar boys or choir members they were always a pallet of those two colors and only those two.

Black Cassocks

The outer garb of altar boys (we were all boys back in the day) had to wear black cassocks and white, square collared surplices. Some of the collars were also rounded instead of square. We thought the word was SURPLUS, and although that may be the homonym, these are two completely different words.

The word Surplice is from the Late Latin superpelliceum, from super (over) and pellicia (fur garment). The surplice was in the form of a tunic made of cotton or white linen that reaches to the knees of the wearer. The had wide sleeves and no pockets. Some of the surplices reached nearly to the ground, but the darker cassock was typically longer than the white over garment. There are several variations of these surplices among the Catholics and Anglicans and Lutheran, but they are usually called surplices nonetheless. [1]

White Surplices

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the surplice is also called a “cotta” and sometimes features lace decorations and embroidered borders on the hem and sleeves. The surplice is like a miniature alb, symbolizing the purity of baptism, where the members of the faith are washed in holy water and symbolically absolved of their sins. Cassocks and surplices are also warn by priests, lectors, altar servers, choir members, deacons, seminarians, choir directors and other members of the clergy.

The surplice belongs to the vestes sacrae (sacred vestments) of the church and carries sacramental powers to the bearer, though wearing is not required to have prayers or a benediction prayed over them before putting it on.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplice