Feb 1, 2013

Fabric Etymology

Many of the fabric names we use today have very old origins, some quite surprising. Lets take a look at some of them.

It is a very old type of cloth which is made from flax. The word linen dates back to Old English linen – our earliest record of it is from 700 A.D. This word has not changed in over a millenium! There were cognates in Old Frisian, Old Scandinavian, and Old High German, all of which came from a Proto-Germanic root *linom which means "flax".

It has its roots in the Arab town of Mosul, where the cloth was originally made. The Romance languages all have cognates, as does Greek: musselin. The current form of the word dates in English to the early 17th century. However, Old French had mosulin in the 13th century, but this was applied to "cloth of silk and gold’ from Mosul, according to Marco Polo.

This word is quite old, dating from the time that the Greeks obtained silk from the east. The Greek form was seres, and the Romans borrowed that word along with the adjectival form, sericus. Seres is the name that the Greeks had for the oriental people who first provided them with silk. It is thought that the "r" may have changed to an "l" as the word traveled from the Greco-Romans to the Baltic area. There is an Old Slavic form shelku, as well as Old Norse silki and Old English sioloc. No other Germanic language possess this word. Interestingly, silkie is an old Scottish word for seals, so-named because of their silky fur.

It is a stiff, transparent form of silk, got its name from organzine, a strong, high-quality silk thread. That word comes from Italian organzino (17th century) but the source of the Italian word is not known.

It is, interestingly, related to our broach/brooch. It comes from Spanish brocado, which corresponds to Italian broccato "cloth of gold and silver", but literally broccato is "something bossed or embossed". The Italian form comes originally from the verb broccare "to boss, to stud, to set with great-headed nails", from Italian brocca "a boss or stud". Brocca is cognate with English broach/brooch, which is simply a boss worn on one's clothing .

Many of us probably assumed Tweed was named after the River Tweed in the Borders of Scotland, but this is not so. It is actually the product of a misunderstanding! This misunderstanding occurred in about 1831, when someone misread the Scottish word tweel "twill" as tweed. It is likely that the river name played some part in the misreading, but the cloth is not named after the river. Exactly who was guilty of this error has not been well determined. However, in 1847, it was written "Narrow cloths, of various kinds, known by the name of Tweeds,..are extensively produced at Galashiels and Jedburgh, but especially the former.

If you know any French, you might recognize the elements du and roi in the word: du = "of" and roi = "king". Corde du roi, "the king's cord", was either invented in English to have this meaning, or that meaning was attached to it soon after the word was coined in the 18th century. The phrase corde du roi is not known in French. In fact, a French list of manufactured articles, dating from 1807, includes "kings-cordes", apparently taken from the English word!

It was current in English by the mid-14th century, in the form taffata. Old French had taffeta and tapheta, and the Romance languages all had similar forms. The ultimate source is Persian taftah "silken cloth" OR "linen clothing". It comes from the Persian verb taftan "to shine" or "to twist, to spin".

It has its roots in a Latin words meaning "shaggy haired"! Its earliest English form was veluett or veluet (c. 1320), having entered English from medieval Latin velvetum, which came ultimately from Latin villus "hair, down". Some cognates are Italian velluto, Old French velut, and Spanish and Portuguese velludo.

Crepe de Chine:
It is literally "China crape", a white crape made from raw silk. Crape, as found in the term crape myrtle today, is increasingly being replaced by the French form crêpe, having come full circle as crape comes originally from the French form. Crêpe means "crisp" or "wrinkled", arising ultimately from Latin crispa "curled". The term crepe de chine was borrowed by English from French in the 19th century, the French having coined it to differentiate it from crêpe anglais, known in English as "simply crape". That word was originally crespe in English (mid 17th century) as in French, but by the late 17th century it was being spelled phonetically: crape.

It is a fabric made of silk or other threads interwoven with metallic threads. It gets its name from lame, which was a thin metal plate applied to the small overlapping steel plates used in old armor. Its earliest form was lamm (late 16th century) and English went back to the French form in the early 20th century. French got it from Latin lamina "thin piece or plate". English cognates are lamina and laminate.

It is named after a fairly old cognate of the English word ray. A rayon is a "ray of light", from French (1539) rayon, coming ultimately from rais "ray". It was applied to a synthetic cloth in the early 20th century, presumably because of the cloth's sheen.

It is simply a clever inversion of expand.

It is simply "many esters", an ester being not a Christian holiday, but an acid derivative. The word ester is thought to come from essig "vinegar" (acid) and äther "ether".

This word seems to arise first in the 16th century. Some believe it comes from French tiretaine (c. 1247) "a half wool, half linen cloth"

It comes ultimately from Malay ginggang "striped". It found its way to English via French guingan, from Spanish guinga and Portuguese guingão, Italian gingano, and Dutch ging(g)ang. The word first appeared in print in English in the early 17th century. Its circuitous route from Malay is an indication of the scale of trade and exploration occurring at the time.

This word has roots in Arabic. There it was qutn or qutun, and with the prefixed article it was alqoton. The Spanish took that word as alcoton, but they eventually dropped the prefix and the word became coton, although algodon is still used for specific applications (i.e., a cotton swab) . Italian and Provençal took it from Spanish (as cotone and coton, respectively), and the French took it from the Provençal form and gave it to Middle English as coton in the 14th century. The later English form cotton arose in the 16th century.