A discussion on the etymology of two expensive and luxurious fabrics.
In these columns about fabrics, the two most luxurious fabrics were saved for last. So let’s get lesser and workmanlike fabrics out of the way before talking about the regal ones.
Corduroy, the familiar durable fabric, has no known linguistic parents though it is said to be the offspring of many a word. Folk etymology has it as originating from French ‘corde du roi’ (cord of the King), but in French the term for the cloth is velours À côtes.
The OED assertion that an 1807 French list of manufactured fabrics included the English words ‘kings-cordes’ cast doubt on fabric’s French lineage. Since the term first appeared in American English in 1787, and ‘cord’ is used for a specific quantity of cut wood, a stack of cut wood could have led to the thick strong cotton cloth (duroy) with thin raised lines on it being called corduroy.
Corde is from Latin corda, meaning string, hence an electric cord. Duroy was a type of rough woollen cloth made in England (17-19 centuries). Therefore someone with active imagination could have called duroy that was ribbed as corduroy. Another possible explanation is that when corduroy was first made from silk, some enterprising manufacturer with a surname Corderoy (there is such a surname) named it after himself as a sales or promotion gimmick.
Satin, the smooth fabric of silk (lately of rayon) with a glossy face and a dull back, has long been a synonym for expensive and luxurious clothes. Satin-like is used to describe something smooth and glossy, and satiny for a thing’s appearance and texture has been a favourite metaphor for poets for centuries. Here are two examples picked at random:
“...sebud garden of girls, Come hither, the dances are done, In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls, Queen lily and rose in one; Shine out, little ....” (Tennyson).
“... like kisses from a female mouth, And sounds as if it should be writ on satin, With syllables which breathe of the sweet South, And gentle liquids ....” (Byron).
One of the most interesting quotes is from the 13th century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi: “...y jarful spills and makes the earth /more shining, as though covered in satin.”
Since I don’t read Persian, it is difficult to say whether ‘satin’ was the term originally used by Rumi or a metaphor introduced by the translator. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Rumi knew about satin because one theory has satin originating from Arabic zaytuni, lit. (satin) from Zaitun, perhaps the modern city of Tsinkiang in Fukien province, southern China, which was a port in the Middle Ages.
The OED finds the Arabic connection etymologically untenable and maintains that the term was perhaps influenced by Latin seta ‘silk.’
Satin has not lost its lustre for the modern woman. Liz Smith supposedly said, “Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” It’s the allure of red satin that separates gossip from news. In Dorothy Parker’s view “Where’s the man could ease a heart, like a satin gown?” it was the cloth, not colour, which mattered.
The only other fabric that can rival the use of satin and silk as a metaphor for both opulence and softness is velvet. Velvet is a closely woven fabric of silk, cotton, or nylon with a thick short pile on one side. The pile texture gives away its root in a Latin word meaning ‘shaggy haired’! Its earliest English form was veluett or veluet (c. 1320).
In 1592 shag was the ‘cloth having a velvet nap on one side,’ but in modern terminology shag or shag-pile carpet is a carpet or rug with a rough surface made from long threads of wool, and the name for a strong-tasting tobacco with thick leaves cut into small thin pieces. A shaggy dog is a dog with a coat of long hair.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, as well as Napoleon are said to be responsible for coining the idiom ‘An iron hand/fist in a velvet glove.’ It has been frequently used to describe the Indian leader Sardar Patel and means ‘something that you say when you are describing someone who seems to be gentle but is in fact severe and firm.’
A Velvet Revolution, like the one led by Vaclav Havel in Poland, is a non-violent political revolution. A Velvet Divorce, the non-violent separation of formerly united nations, took place in the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
Red velvet is often used for ceremonial occasions and in the upholstering of thrones; a French proverb is “A throne is only a bench covered with red velvet.”
Since all expensive things generally have imitations, velveteen is imitation velvet (made with cotton in place of silk), first used in 1776, from velvet + commercial suffix -een (variant of -ine).
A word that seems to have gone out of circulation is plush, a heavy cloth that looks like velvet. Its use as an adjective, meaning “swank, luxurious” was first recorded in 1927. Last of all is another fabric that is similar to velvet but cheaper is velour (“gold velour curtains’”).
Unless readers are fed up with reading about fabrics, the last column in this series will be about words the origin of which can be traced back to fabrics, but which have acquired a totally different meaning.
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