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Issue 33

March 22, 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.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

The fabric of words, part III

We've talked about quite a few textile words in the last two issues. Believe it or not, there are more!

Velvet 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 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". Note the diacritical mark on the first e in crêpe. It is indicative of the s which followed that e in an earlier version of the French word. The s was dropped in French in the 16th century. 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.

Lamé 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.

Rayon is, interestingly, 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.

While we're on synthetic materials, there's spandex, which, as you probably surmised, is simply a clever inversion of expand. As for polyester, it's 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".

Then there's tartan. 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", but whether it arose naturally in English between the 13th and 16th centuries, or whether it was purposefully derived in the 16th century, is not exactly clear.

Calico is one of those fabrics named after a city. In this case the city is known in English as Calico, and it was an important city in trade between India and Europe, located on the Malabar coast. The word was also calicut in late 16th/ early 17th century English, and its earliest English form was kalyko (mid-14th century). The city was known variously as Qaliqut in Arabic, Collicuthia in medieval Latin, and Qualecut and Calecut in Portuguese. It is thought that the pronunciation of the French form, calicot, influenced today's spelling of the word.

Gingham, interestingly, 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.

Percale always sounded like a trade name to us, but it actually has roots in an Eastern source, though which one is not clear. There is Persian pargalah "a rag" which may be related. The modern meaning "a closely woven cotton fabric" comes from French percale (early 17th century), for the modern cloth was originally manufactured in France.

Cotton itself 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.

While we're on the subject of cotton, there is a type of cotton called pima. This is a fine quality cotton developed from an Egyptian strain, and it is named after Pima County, in southern Arizona, where it was originally grown. You've probably also heard of mercerized cotton, which is not cotton spun with Johnny Mercer's songs playing in the background. It is named after a different John Mercer, who discovered (1844) and patented (1850) a process of preparing cotton with a solution of caustic potash or soda before dying it so that the fiber held the dye. Interestingly, the process did not catch on until about 1895.

Now that we've examined so many textiles, perhaps we should examine the word textile itself. It is first recorded in English in the mid 17th century. It comes directly from Latin textile "woven fabric", from texere "to weave". The word text is a cognate, coming from Latin textus "that which is woven", referring originally to a particular style of Medieval script which was so dense that it looked like weaving.  The ultimate source of both of these words is the Indo-European root *tek- "to make", which also gave us such words as technical and tissue.

So there we have it. There exists an amazing number of words to describe fabrics. We have touched on only a few of the modern terms, and we by no means dealt with all of the older words. In order to do so, we would have to alter the fabric of time!


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Peter Kuske:

Having just read a humorous piece in a local newspaper, I was intrigued by the origin of titillating. Could you help?

Obviously the word titillating titillated your curiosity! The word comes from Latin titillare "to tickle", the sense in English being "stimulate".  It goes back to the Indo-European route tit- "to tickle", source of English kittle "tickle", which is possibly a metathetic form of tickle.

There is one source which believes that titillate may be related to tit, which is an Old English word with many relatives in the Germanic languages.  The Romance languages even borrowed tit from Germanic sources (e.g., Spanish teta, French tette.  The French form gave English teat, considered more polite than tit).  Tit is thought to have arisen as imitative of a baby's suckling sounds.  However, the source offering this etymology does not explain the connection and thus violates Weekley's rules for sound etymology.

Titillate first appears in writing in 1620 in Venner's Via Recta: "It... exciteth the appetite, by corrugating the mouth of the stomacke, and titillating the pallate. "


From Lizbet54:

I am having an argument with my husband on the connection between babble and the Tower of Babel. He allows no connection but I have found an encyclopedia which states that babble is derived from the story of the Tower of Babel. Any help would be appreciated.

Do you mean "help" as in "help resolve the dispute" or "help" as in "help me prove hubby wrong"? We can do one but not both.

Babble is derived from The Tower of Babel (Breughel)the incoherent bab-bab sounds made by babies and has cognates in several Germanic languages including the Dutch babbelen and in the Icelandic babbla.  Technically, babble is said to be the frequentative form of bab. That is to say, bab was lengthened (by adding -le) without a change in meaning. A similar process occurred to the word prate, giving us prattle. Both prate and prattle are more or less synonymous with babble.

The "Tower of Babel" myth is a neat but implausible explanation for the multiplicity of languages spoken by mankind. The Hebrew name Babel (bab "gate" + el "god" = "gate of god") is thought to refer to the ancient city of Babylon. Now Babylon is merely the Greek form of bab-ili, the Assyrian translation of the Akkadian ca-dimira, "gate of the gods", which is what the locals called it.

The story of Babel has no direct connection with the English word babble but through such words as  Babeldom, "a noisy confusion", it may possibly have added nuances of meaning. It might also account for the use of babel as an obsolete spelling of babble. That's no excuse for the encyclopedia, though. Did you buy it in a discount sale, perchance?


From Kurt Cabral:

I teach English as a second language and often my students use expressions they have heard on TV or in the movies. One such expression is kaput. Some have asked me where this word comes from, but alas I am at a loss to answer them. I understand the word to mean "finished, drained" and that it may have come from German. Do you have an answer?

The etymology of kaput is not as obvious as it may seem.  It did come to English (in the late 19th century) from German, but where the Germans got it is the trick - or not the trick. It comes from French capot "to be without tricks" in the card game known as piquet. It originally referred to the winning move by the player who took all of the tricks (scoring 40 points), but it came to be applied to the person who lost in such a play.  Capot entered English in the mid-17th century. The Germans extended the meaning to "finished, worn out, dead or destroyed" in general.

The French capot came originally from capot meaning "cover, bonnet", from Middle French cape "cloak".  Presumably, the sense in the card game is one of "covering" your opponent's hand and making it worthless with all of your tricks.


From Emerson Pope:

I am very curious as to the origins of the word faggot, or more specifically, its usage in reference to homosexuals. I know that it was used to refer to a bundle of sticks, and also referred to heretics which were burned at the stake. My friend is trying to convince me that homosexuals were so-called because they were used to "make the fire hot enough" to burn witches. Can you please prove her wrong?

We are sorry to tell you that what you "know" is only partly true. You are correct when you state that  the word faggot means "a bundle of sticks". On the other hand, we doubt that the word was ever used to refer to "heretics which were burned at the stake". There was an expression "to carry [or bear] a faggot" which meant to have renounced heresy, however. Heretics who had recanted were required to bear the sign of a faggot embroidered on their sleeve.

While we can't actually prove her wrong, your friend's scenario seems obviously flawed. Leaving aside the issue of whether homosexuals ever were burned at the stake, why should they burn more readily than witches? If the fire wasn't hot enough to burn a witch, why should it be hot enough to burn homosexuals? What if the homosexuals were also witches, would that make them harder to light?

Actually, the etymology of faggot as a term for a homosexual male is not fully understood. As a word for a bundle of sticks, the word entered Middle English from Old French fagot some time before 1300. Its ultimate origin is obscure but it seems to be related to the Italian fa(n)gotto. By 1600, faggot was used as a pejorative slang word for "a woman", much as a 20th century speaker might disparagingly use the term "baggage". It is possible, though by no means beyond question, that this usage gave rise to the modern meaning of "homosexual".

Now, please excuse us while we light up a fag. *


From Sarah Thorndyke:

My brother challenged me to find the etymology of the term round robin in relation to sports tournaments and also to computer programming. Any help with this would be much appreciated (and of course acknowledged to my brother!).

Your brother set you quite a tough challenge, Sarah. We can explain this up to a point and then... well, read on. The modern meaning of round robin dates from the early 18th century. As you are no doubt aware, life on board sailing ships in those days was no picnic.  If the sailors dared to write a petition of complaint to the captain, the unfortunate mariner whose name came first in the petition risked being flogged as the  ring-leader. Hence, the petitioners would sign their names in the form of a circle, with no one name having precedence.

Well, that takes care of the round part but where does robin come in? To be honest, no one knows. Surprisingly, the term round robin was not invented by the mutinous sailors, but was merely borrowed from a much older expression. During the reformation, when the Church of England broke from the Church of Rome, sacramental wafers came to be known by various "blasphemous" names, including Jacke in the boxe and round Roben. Once again, it is easy to see where the round part came from but the robin remains a mystery.


From Samantha Watson:

I have been searching everywhere for references to the word drum, used as a slang word in England for a house or home. Have you ever come across this sense of the word?

Of course! How could you doubt our omniscience? Drum is not simply slang but a special kind of slang known as "cant", the slang of thieves and beggars (and policemen). Drum is a back-formation from drummer, the cant term for a house-breaker who works only by daylight. It is the practice of drummers to knock loudly (i.e. to drum) upon the front door of a house to make quite sure that no one is at home before breaking in. A burglar, incidentally, is a house-breaker who works only by night but, other than drummer, English has no word for a house-breaker who works only by day.

*  Please note that we do not endorse the immolation of homosexuals - a fag in Britain is a cigarette. Actually, we don't smoke but we just couldn't resist the joke.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

This week we have a guest curmudgeon, reader Bryan Clark

"Quote 'quote' unquote"

Echoing what everyone else likely says when they write to you, I thoroughly enjoy your page.  [Why, thank you (blush) - Eds.]

Issue #30 reminded me of a monumental gripe that bothers a select (and too) few folks in my social circle: "quote" versus "quotation". It seems as if the former, a verb, often substitutes for the noun indicated by the latter. Referring to a single quotation mark as a "quote" doesn't much bother me, but it seriously grates the ears when someone quotes a line from a movie or, worse yet, a fine piece of literature, then calls it "a great quote." I'm struck with an image of a gigantic single quotation mark floating in the sky, shimmering in the heat of a flaming copy of Strunk & White...


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