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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 31

March 8, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Sez You . . . You dare to question our profound erudition?
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

The fabric of words

There are numerous fabric types and equally numerous words naming them.  Many of the fabric names we use today have very old origins, some quite surprising.  We will examine cloth-related words in three parts: this is the first, and the second and third will be published in subsequent issues of Take Our Word For It.

First let us examine some general terms:  fabric entered English via French fabrique.  If you have ever received goods made in a French-speaking country, you’ll recognize a word which is very similar to fabrique: fabriqu, which means "made", as in Fabriqu en France.  Fabrique, therefore, is something which is "made".  Its source, Latin fabrica, comes from faber "one who works in and makes things from metal, stone, wood, etc."  Fabric entered English in this sense in the 18th  century.

Stuff is another word for "fabric".  Middle English acquired it as stoffe from Old French estoffe "material, furniture, provision(modern French toffe "textile material").  The French got the word from vulgar Latin stoffa and the related verb stoffare "to stuff", but where the Romans got the word is a bit of a mystery.   The original sense of the vulgar Latin verb appears to have been "to garnish [with something]", but that is all we know with relative certainty; anything else is conjecture.  In the 14th century the word came to refer to the quilted material worn under mail, especially in poetic use.  It was not until the 15th century that it came to apply to fabric in general.

There's also material: this is one of the later fabric-words to enter English.  It came into use in reference to cloth in the 19th century.  It comes ultimately from late Latin materialis, which itself came from materia "matter".

Finally, we have cloth, the oldest of the general words used to describe fabric.  Cloth dates back to Old English, and there are cognates in most of the Germanic languages; it seems to have made the Germanic rounds by the 12th century.  The plural of cloth was originally clothes, but that form now refers solely to garments, and today cloth's plural form is cloths.  The 19th century saw that delineation.  The oldest use of the word cloth in Old English refers not to fabric alone, but to fabric that was wrapped around the body.  The progression to clothes and, separately, cloth from that root meaning is not difficult to see. Clout, a variant form of cloth, survives in the old saying "Ne'er cast a clout till May be out" which refers to the old English custom of wearing the same clothes  all Winter. Indeed, it was not uncommon for people to be sewn into their clothes.

Specific cloth names have equally interesting, sometimes obscure origins. The name of one of the most popular fabrics today, denim, entered English in the 17th century in the form serge de Nim, which was short for French serge de Nmes or Nismes.  Nmes was a manufacturing town in southern France where the fabric was made in great quantities.  By 1695 the term was serge denims (dear Serge, we knew him well!), and in 1864 Webster has, simply, Denim in his dictionary.  Jeans (American) or blue-jeans, which are made of denim today, take their name from another city: Genoa.  Jeans were originally known as Jene fustian (1567) which was “fustian from Genoa”.  Fustian was a fabric which, it is thought, took its name from a suburb of Cairo, Fostat, where cloth was manufactured. 

Interestingly, the Genoan connection extends to Melanie's maiden name: Jeanes.  It is thought that this surname, which was de Genez in Old French, means "of Genoa".  So all of those people who over the years misspelled her maiden name as Jeans were actually not very far off the mark!

Next week we unravel the etymology behind more fabric words.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Stan Arias:

I can't tell you, adequately, how much I enjoy your site.  I am a Senior Pastor at an Assembly of God church in Vernal, Utah.  Preaching/teaching has given me a love for words...or maybe I had the love for words before and that was one of the things that moved me toward the ministry.  The ministry is communication-intensive.  Well, enough about me.

I was asked about the word drivel and would appreciate any help.

Drivel was not always "nonsense".  It, in fact, still refers to spittle, or more precisely, spittle flowing from the mouth.  Imagine a baby who can't quite control himself and drools; the drool is drivel.  This word has very old roots; it came from the verb drivel, which was drevelen in Middle English and dreflian in Old English.  The noun took its current form in the early 14th century.  It was not until the mid-19th century, however, that the word was employed metaphorically to refer to "idiotic utterances", presumably as those utterances were like "drool" or like the utterances which came from the mouth of those who drooled.


From Pranab Mukherjee:

I recently received an e-mail suggesting that the word navigate originated from Sanskrit nou.  Is there any relation between them?

There is indeed, but it is not one of hierarchy.  Instead, the Sanskrit word and the English word come from the same Indo-European source.  Sanskrit is indeed related to English but their relationship is more like  cousins than ancestor and descendant.

Navigate comes from Latin navigare "to sail", which derives from navis "ship" + agere "to drive, guide".  Navis is related to Greek naus "ship", and the Greek form gives English such words as nautical, nausea ("seasickness"), and -naut words such as argonaut, astronaut, etc.  The Latin form produced navy and nave (a part of a Gothic church which looks a bit like a ship), among others.  All of these words, including the Sanskrit form, are ultimately derivations of the Indo-European root *nau "boat". 


From Bob Sloan:

I am English living in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.  One of the highlights of Carnival here was the Drag Queen contest.  I have been asked the origin of the term drag queen.  Apart from hearing references to men dressed as women being in drag as far back as the 1960s, I have no idea [of the term's source].  I found your site whilst trawling the web for an etymology and have been in it for ages!

Ah, Las Canarias — not a bad place to be living, English or not!  We must say that your query raised one question in my mind: how do the locals say drag queen in Spanish?  Well, Spanish aside, the term has an interesting history.  Drag "men in women's clothing" dates, surprisingly, from 1870.  Guess those Victorians weren't as prude as they let on!  The term arose, presumably, due to the men being unaccustomed to women's long skirts and dresses, which were unwieldy, heavy, and dragged on the ground (or dragged the men down with their weight).  Drag queen, however, is not recorded until the early half of the 1960's.  It is though that the queen in the term, which arose in 1924 to mean "effeminate male homosexual", has its roots in quean "young, robust girl" (1470).  Quean, however, is simply another form of queen, so it has gone full circle — well, sort of!


From Rachael:

I was wondering if you can help me figure out the origin of the word cool in the slang sense of the word.

The slang sense to which you refer has its roots in the mid-20th century — it was first recorded in writing in the title of an album by the Charlie Parker Quartet: "Cool Blues".  This is how the slang form of cool was first used, to refer to a certain restrained or relaxed style of jazz.  It was later applied to those who preferred that kind of jazz, especially in the term cool cat.  That usage arose in 1948, while Charlie Parker's album was released in 1947.  It was also in 1948 that the word acquired its "hip" sense, so that anyone or thing that was cool was the subject of approval.  The word has retained that basic sense through the present day.


From Melissa A Bower:

Would you explain the difference between gender and sex?

Why, certainly: sex is biological; gender is grammatical.

The word gender comes from the Latin genus, "race" or "kind" via Old French gendre. It is related to the ancient Greek root gen-, "to produce" (as in genesis, oxygen, etc.) and is distantly related to the Modern English word kin. In Middle English the general gendre meant "the common sort (of people)". Gendre became Modern French genre which still means "type" or "kind".

In many languages (but not English), nouns behave differently depending on the class (gender) to which they belong. Confusion arises between the concepts of gender and sex because in most Indo-European languages the genders are called masculine, feminine and neuter. According to Aristotle, it was the early Greek philosopher Protagoras who first categorized nouns in this way.

It is thought that in the (hypothetical) Indo-European language from which all modern European languages are derived, all male things belonged to the masculine gender, all female things belonged to the feminine gender and all inanimate objects were of the neuter gender. This is no longer the case, however, and all inanimate objects in the Romance languages are now either masculine or feminine. The Semitic languages also have masculine and feminine genders but in some Native American languages the genders are "animate" and "inanimate" and have nothing to do with sex at all.

We are well aware that in modern usage gender is frequently used as a synonym for sex. (We just think it's wrong!) For centuries it has occasionally been used with this meaning but this usage had always been jocular until the 1960s when it began to be used seriously to mean sex.   It is difficult to say for certain why this is so. It could well be that this usage is merely euphemistic. Sex means "the copulatory act" to many people and they are therefore embarrassed to say such phrases as sex difference. By saying gender difference they avoid having to think about the loathsome act.

Alternatively, some have suggested that the usage was popularized by the prominent American jurist Ruth Bader-Ginsburg who, apparently, lisps. From the 1970s onward Ms. Bader-Ginsburg was involved in many sex discrimination cases and, not wishing to expose her speech impediment to ridicule, always called it gender discrimination. Such was her influence on the feminist movement that the term gender discrimination was adopted uncritically, or so some have said.

We were tempted to say that there are only two sexes but there are at least three genders. Then we recalled the work of the French biologist Ren Dubos who determined that there are 16 different sexes - in humans!


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Affect an effect

Unfortunately, in America effect and affect are homophones.  This has led to a great deal of usage confusion regarding these terms.  Nothing drives us more insane than seeing these words misused. Allow us to give a fewDo NOT be fooled by the title of this album by The Jam! guidelines which will hopefully help maintain correct usage.

In general, effect is a noun and affect is a verb.  There are exceptions, but this is a good general rule.  If you can remember that "sound effects" and "personal effects" are things and that, therefore, affect must be a verb, then you're off to a good start.  

Now for those exceptions:  one can effect (i.e. "put into action") and when psychologists speak of a person's affect they mean his or her "mood, feeling, desire, intention".  However, in everyday speech these usages are not as common as those described above.


Sez You...

Lisa writes:

Hello there.. I'd like some advice on how to concisely research etymology.  I have visited web sites (your happens to be extremely good), searched books and databases.  How would you encapsulate the best way to search for word histories - how did you start?

Yikes!  If we tell, we'll be giving away an industrial secret, not to mention intellectual property!   However, if you take a look at our bibliography you'll get a glimpse at how we "concisely" research etymology.

A quick and dirty manner in which to find a word's etymology is to look it up in a dictionary which is known to provide etymologies (American Heritage is an example).  Other than that, all we can say is "research, read, and remember"!


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