Monday, 29 May 2017


weeks ago I looked at how our attire acquired names we use daily without a second thought. Researching same revealed any number of materials used to produce clothes, most of which I hadn't even heard of let alone knew what it was. Hence I decided to produce this follow-up looking at how these terms got their names.

Clearly the majority are likely to be modern, man-made fibres and named to reflect those who first produced and/or marketed same, rather than the more interesting etymologies of the traditional names. Trying to produce this list in chronological order proved something of a nightmare, hence I went for the alphabetical list which makes everything easier to find and also reveals any omissions.

Baize - a woollen fabric typified as much by its plain colours as its nap on one side only. Coming to English from Old French where baies is the plural of the adjective bai meaning 'bay-coloured, itself from the Latin badius 'chestnut -coloured' and thus sharing an etymology with the colour used when referring to a horse. Here the trail leads back to Proto-Indo-European badyo. Now while the horse should correctly be described as 'reddish-bown' the original meaning of the word is both 'yellow' and also 'brown'.

Braid - for obvious reasons referring to the way the cloth is produced as it can also be used to mean 'plait, knit, weave, twist'. The weaving, knitting, plaiting theme has resulted in the use of the word in English and other languages, both contemporary and historical, to mean an amazing array of things. For example Old English bregdan was used in the senses of 'to move quickly, pull, shake, swing, throw (in wrestling), draw (one's sword), change colour, vary, scheme, feign, pretend' as well as those already mentioned. Earlier the term referred to the tight weave-plait-knit producing a finish which saw Proto-Indo-European bherek referring to how it would 'gleam, flash', also seen in Sanskrit bhrasate 'flames, shines, blazes'.

Buckram - another of Old French origins, similar words seen in Spanish and Italian, where boquerant meant 'fine oriental cloth' in the 12th century and whilst latterly this is a coarse fabric often used for lining, originally this was a delicate and most expensive fabric which, from its name, tells us it was imported from the east, most likely central Asia.

Burlap - another coming to English from France, here Old French borel 'coarse cloth' is probably from Old Dutch boeren meaning 'coarse' but this is derived from boer 'peasant'. The second element originally referred to the garment, specifically 'the skirt or flap of a garment' and a word which also led to the reference to the upper part of the legs of a seated person.

Calico - is a corruption of Calicut, a seaport on the Malabar coast of India from whence it was first exported to Europe. When it first appeared in English around 1530, the accepted spelling was kalyko.

Cambric - named from the French place name where it was originally produced. The place name is from the Romano-Gaulish era, probably referring to 'the place of a man named Camarus' although some sources go further and speak of the personal name as a nickname meaning 'that which is twisted or bent'.

Chantilly - of course is the name of the town in France where this lace was originally produced from 1831 - it is also the name of a kind of porcelain, this seen since 1774. The place name refers to itself as 'the place of a man named Cantilius'.

Cheesecloth - having already defined 'cloth' above, suffice to say this was the cloth produced from around 1650 to aid in the production of cheese as this was that in which the curds would be pressed. It won't hurt to add that 'cheese' is derived from Proto-Indo-European kwat 'to ferment, become sour' and an apt description of cheese.

Cloth - is a word first seen in English as referring to the sail or, more often, the woven or felted material wrapped around same. Hence the almost simultaneous use in the sense 'garment'. This can be traced to Proto-Germanic kalithaz, which has given words for 'garment' and/or 'dress' in just about every modern Germanic tongue and all their many early forms. With unchanging forms and use for so long, and then nothing, this is good evidence the term is an early loan word from an unknown, perhaps now lost, language.

Corduroy - is not, as some would have us believe, from the French corde du roi or 'the king's cord', but of English origins where 'cord' and 'duroy' were combined. The latter is a coarse fabric of unknown origins, while 'cord' is an Old French term corde meaning 'rope, string' and derived from Proto-Indo-European ghere 'intestine'.

Cotton - coming to English from Old French, it is thought to be of Egyptian origin and came to Europe from Arabic qutn. Sadly earlier forms and languages are unknown.

Crepe - is named for its crinkled appearance and named, appropriately enough, from the French and Latin crispa 'curled, wrinkled, having curly hair' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European sker 'to turn, bend'. Note there are over a hundred supposedly different kinds of this material, all with distinctive names which refer solely to their point of manufacture.

Damask - is named after the Syrian city of Damascus, discussed under my earlier look at capital cities is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and, somewhat predictably, a name which has seen several explations including 'dwelling', 'a well-watered place', 'the land of Levant' and 'industrious'.

Denim - named after the French town, indeed it was originally referred to as serge de Nimes or 'serge from Nimes', with the place name ultimately from the Gaulish nemo 'sanctuary'.

Drill - came to English from the French, itself a German loan word drilich from Latin trilix both meaning 'threefold' and used because of the way the weave is produced. Note this has identical origins with 'trellis'.

Ermine - animals are generally named for either their colour or the sound they make. Here there are equally plausible explanations for both - either this is an eastern European root related to mus 'mouse' or a Germic word for 'weasel' harmo. Note the latter was used in Old English hearma to refer to a 'shrew', likely because a misunderstanding in the sound they make.

Fabric - comes from Latin fabricare 'to make, construct' and ultimately from Proto-Italic fafro and Proto-Indo-European dhabh 'to fit together' and an obvious reference to weaving. Note this root has also given the Armenian word darbin 'a metalworker' and also the English word 'daft' which was originally used to mean 'to put in order, assemble, suitable' before evolving to mean 'well-mannered' and then used ironically to 'dull, awkward' and thereafter 'foolish'.

Fleece - originally referred to it still being on the sheep, this traceable back to Proto-Indo-European pleus 'to pluck' which has also given us the word 'feather', thus it is easy to see how both were seen primarily as filling.

Fur - although we think of 'fur' as being on the animal, this has only been the case since 1400. Prior to that 'fur' applied to the pelt of animal when used as a lining or trimming of a garment. Hence why this comes from Proto-Germanic fodram 'sheath', Old High German fotar 'coat lining', and Gothic fodr 'sword sheath' - all based on the Proto-Indo-European root pa 'to protect'.

Gaberdine - as a cloth is unknown until 1904, however the word had applied to 'a long, loose outer garment' since the early 16th century. Here we can trace the word related to Middle High German wallevart 'pilgrimage' and named from Wallfahrt 'pilgrim's cloak'. The ultimate origin is Proto-Indo-European per 'to lead, pass over'.

Gingham - obtained from the east and a cotton fabric named by Dutch traders as gingang, itself from the Malay ginggang 'striped'.

Hessian - is derived from the use of this coarsely woven fabric in the uniform of the soldiers of Hesse, a place name derived from the Germanic tribe known as the Chatti, itself 'the dwellers on the Hase river', this river name probably simply meaning 'to flow'.

Lace - in 1902 the Century Dictionary records 87 distinct varieties of lace, although there are certainly many, many more. Coming to English from Old French laz, the root is Early Latin laqueum 'noose, snare' and a reference to the twining and braiding of cotton in the production of lace. It shares an etymology with 'lasso' and the Latin lacere 'to entice'.

Lame - a silk interwoven with metallic threads which is why the French lame meant 'thin metal plate' and earlier 'thin strip, blade, sheet, slice' and also shares a root with 'laminate'.

Leather - as one of the earliest materials used for clothing and certainly the most enduring, it is no surprise to find the word has hardly changed in thousands of years since Proto-Indo-European letro.

Linen - the cloth is woven from flax and therefore it comes a no surprise to find the name does, too. Here the Old English lin and Proto-Germanic linam, both meaning 'flax', are but two of many possible examples. Clearly of ancient use and ancient origin, the true root is lost in the mists of time. While it is easily seen as sharing a modern origin with 'lingerie', less obvious is the link to 'woollen'.

Lisle - is named after the French city where it was made, and indeed the city of Lille had long been recorded as Lisle. This comes from the French l'isle meaning 'the island'.

Material - this basic term began in English as an adjective. Here the root is Latin materia 'matter, stuff, wood, timber' and even shares a root with 'matter' in the Proto-Indo-European words associated with the sense of 'origin, source' and even 'mother' which is why the Latin for 'mother' is mater.

Mink - takes its name from the animal, this related to the Swedish menk which has the quite specific meaning of 'a stinking animal in Finland' but not applied to the animal we know in English until 1620.

Nankeen - named from the place where this cotton cloth was first produced, what we would known as Nanking in China takes its name from the Chinese nan jing 'southern capital'.

Nylon - coind in 1938 when this, the world's first synthetic material, used the suffix '-on' because of 'cotton'. There are a number of dubious explanations as to how nylon got its name, the most popular, and seemingly the most convoluted, being that it was originally to be called 'No-Run', but was discarded as this suggested something untrue. Next these letters were reversed to produced 'nuron', this also thrown out owing to it sounding like a nerve tonic (really?). This was then tweaked to 'nilon' and then to 'nylon' to clarify pronunciation.

Organdy - is a fine muslin, the name of unknown origin but it has been suggested it is named after the Uzbekistan city of Urgench, a known cotton textile centre. If so we need to define the place name but I couldn't so we won't mention that and move swiftly on.

Polyester - is a synthetic fibre first created in 1941. A polymer, which is why the inventors named it from 'polymer' and 'ester', and named for very sensible but quite complex reasons. Taking the suffix first, this was coined as it was an acid joined to an alcohol and ultimately from the same root as 'ether' in Proto-Indo-European aidh 'to burn'. 'Polymer' is comprised of two Proto-Indo-European root words: pele 'to fill' and meros, which has also given us 'merit', meaning 'part'.

Rayon - another with the '-on' suffix, this shiny fabric borrowed the name of an earlier cloth, itself named from the French rai 'beam of light, ray' as it was shiny.

Sable - named from the animal, itself probably of eastern European origins, a Slavic word which likely refers to colour but thus far has proven elusive.

Satin - might be from the Chinese place name Zaitun, 'city of olives', now known as Quanzhou or 'place with a spring', although this is likely created to answer a problem no one knows the answer to.

Seersucker - from the Hinda sirsakar, itself a corriuption of Persian shir o shakkar which literally means 'milk and sugar' but refers to the striped effect produced by the alternative rough and smooth surfaces.

Serge - shares an origin with 'silk' (see below) as its early use meant 'silken'.

Silk - named by the Greeks as Serikos, as they obtained their silk from the Seres people of the Serica region of Asia, said to be named from the local word for 'silkworms' from which silk is, of course, produced. However this has been ridiculed by some saying it is ludicrous to think a nation would ever be named after an insect - never heard of ant-arctica then.

Spandex - a proprietary name based on 'expand' as it is noted for its elastic properties, with the oft-seen commercial addition of '-ex'. Oddly 'expand' features the same syllable, albeit as a prefix, this referring to 'out' and from the Proto-Indo-European eghs with the same meaning. The other half is from a French and Latin route, traced back to the same root as 'pace' which, once again, comes from Proto-Indo-European where pete meant 'to spread'.

Suede - is correctly defined as 'undressed kid skin' and named from the middle of the 19th century as gants de Suede, quite literally 'gloves of Sweden'. The name of the nation is from Proto-Germanic, either sweba meaning 'free, independent' or geswion 'kinsman'.

Taffeta - another to come to English along the French and Latin route, here the origin is Persian taftan 'to twist, spin, weave' and shares an etymology with 'tapestry'.

Towelling - comes from the word 'towel', itself seen in many European languages where, although the common root is not known, all seem to refer to material used to protect. Among the examples is the French for towel, Dutch for 'altar cloth', German for 'towel', German for 'napkin', and Old English 'to wash'.

Tulle - is named after the French town where the material was first made, the town being named after Tutela a pagan guardian deity.

Tweed - began as a trade name for a woollen fabric first advertised as 'Tweed fishing trousers' and thus named from the river which simply means 'the dark one'.

Twill - is a Germanic word, seen in Old English twili 'woven with a double thread'.

Velour - again a French and Latin trail, it is named from being 'shaggy, hairy, rough' and shares an etymology with 'velvet' (see below).

Velvet - came to English through French and Latin and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European wel-no 'to tear, to pull' and used in the sense 'rough' as is 'velour' (see above).

Voile - a fine material sharing an etymology with 'veil' in the Proto-Indo-European weg 'to weave a web'.

Wool - irrespective of which European language is examined, all point back to Proto-Indo-European wele meaning simply 'wool'.

Worsted - as many will know the woollen fabric was first made in Norfolk and named after the town of Worstead meaning 'place of a man called Wirda'.

If there are any others I have omitted and you would like to know the origins, drop me a line.

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