Thursday, March 21, 2013

Napkin & its many relations

Napkin & its many relations

Who knew the unassuming word napkin was part of such a large, disparate family?

Napkin entered English in the 1400s from the Old French word nape, cloth cover, towel, or tablecloth combined with the Middle English suffix –kin, meaning little. The French got the root from the Latin word mappa, short for the Medieval Latin term mappa mundi, map of the world. The somewhat unlikely connection apparently derives from the fact that at that time maps were often drawn on tablecloths (I find no connection to the word divorce, though I imagine this map-on-a-tablecloth practice led to some robust interspousal arguments).

So, napkin is related to map.

In the late 1400s, mappa’s brother-word mappe made its way into English, meaning bundle of yarn tied to a stick for cleaning tar from a ship’s deck. Over the years this word morphed into mop.

Another somewhat likely sibling of napkin is moppet, which came to English about the same time in the form of moppe, meaning little child, or baby doll, which, in time picked up the diminutive suffix, -et.  When it first entered English it also meant simpleton or fool. This other meaning dropped out within a century or two. Etymologists are pretty sure the little child or baby doll meaning came through the use of recycling napkins & tablecloths into rag dolls (no doubt after some unthinking spouse had drawn maps all over them).

Another napkin relative comes from the Latin word mappa, through the Old French word, naperon, or small table cloth. It entered English in the 1300s as Napron, though today we know it as apron. Over the course of three centuries, napron lost its initial n due to confusion around the use of the English article an:  “a napron” sounds about the same as “an apron.” Voila! The mystery of the disappearing n has been solved.

Another relative of napkin is probably due to an early 1700s London dry-goods dealer by the name of Doiley. Apparently s/he produced a wool product known as a doily-napkin. Over time, the doily-napkin shed its surname and became simply, the doily.

Good followers, I challenge you to come up with a ridiculous sentence using as many napkin-related words as possible. Leave your sentence in the comments section & we’ll all get a good laugh.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik,, Etymonline,


  1. Such a wealth of information! And it goes so well with last week's flatware post. I'm especially interested to know that the word "doily" came from a proper name. It's such a wonderfully silly-sounding word. Thanks for the weekly enlightenment!

  2. It is truly amazing how words morph. I love the whole map/napkin relationship. And, your bemusing about that relationship to divorce. Ha!

  3. Ahoy Anne & Christine,
    Thanks for dropping by & having something to say. Yes, Anne, this post did, indeed grow out of last week's post on knives, forks & spoons. And Christine, can't you just see some late Medieval lord getting chewed out by some late Medieval lady for drawing all over her best tablecloth with all his drunk buddies? Cracks me up.