Of the cloth
Here’s a thematic dip into the etymologies of some common fabrics.
The word muslin came to English about 1600, from the French word mousseline, which came from the Italian word mussolina, which came from the Italian word Mussolo, a rendering of the Mesopotamian city, Mosul (now in Iraq). It was in Mosul that people wove a luxurious fabric of silk & gold the Italians called mussolilna. Nobody’s quite sure how muslin lost its luster, but by 1872, Americans defined it as everyday cotton fabric for shirts & bedding.
Corduroy’s story provides a near-mirror image of muslin’s story. Corduroy entered the language in 1780 & referred to a coarse fabric made in England. Tales are told that it comes from corde du roi, the corde of royalty, but no evidence exists to support this story, & coarse cloth would definitely chap the hide of royalty. Today, corduroy is a durable, cotton fabric with vertical ribs or wales.
The word denim entered English in the late 1600s. It came from the French serge de Nîmes, meaning serge from Nîmes (a town in southern France). The word denim was first applied to the trousers we call jeans in 1868.
The word canvas made its way into English in the mid-15th century, from the Old French word canevas, which meant made of hemp, from the Latin cannabis. Who knew?
Last, & least referred to in this modern age, is the word seersucker, which comes from the Hindi word sirsakir, which came from the Persian shir o shakkar. This term referred to a striped cloth alternating between smooth & puckered textures. Shir o shakkar translates literally to milk & sugar, suggesting that the smooth stripes in the fabric are smooth as milk, while the puckered stripes have a rougher texture.
Dear readers, shall we all plan a trip to the south of France, wearing our serge de Nîmes? Or what do you think of bringing back seersucker? Or have you ever met sailors who appear to have had a bit too much experience with, well, shall we say canvas?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com & The OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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