Saturday, September 29, 2012

Facewear #1

Facewear #1

Last week’s post took a look at the etymologies of headwear, so this week we’ll move south a tiny bit to take a look at three things worn on the face.

Lately, the veil has received a lot of attention. The noun veil came into English in the late 1300s from the Anglo-French word veil, which meant both head-covering & sail. This came from the Latin velum, sail, curtain or covering (which, intriguingly is not related to the English word vellum).

Both mask & mascara have their roots in the Middle French word masque, a covering to hide or guard the face. This came from a Middle Latin word, masca, meaning specter or nightmare. Nobody’s certain where the Middle Latin came from, but it may have its roots in the Arabic word maskhara, buffoon or mockery, or possibly from Catalan, maskarar to blacken the face. It may even have come from the Old Occitan word masco, which means both witch & dark cloud before the rain comes.

Grin showed up in Old English as grennian, to show the teeth in pain or anger. Many Germanic languages had/have related roots: Dutch, grienan, to whine; Old Norse, grenja, to howl; German, greinen, to cry. It wasn’t until the late 1500s that the word grin began to be the sort of thing one might want to see on a friend.

Dear followers, please contribute to next week’s post by using the comments section to suggest other items, treatments or expressions that might be worn on a face.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED,

Thursday, September 20, 2012



This week is an etymological tip of the hat to headwear.

Hat comes from the Old English word haet, head covering, which came from a Proto Indo-European word meaning cover or protect.

Cap is also came from Old English. It started as caeppe, a hood covering or cape. This word came from the Latin word caput, head.  In English it only referred to women’s head coverings until the late 1300s, & is, not surprisingly, related to the French word chapeau.

Though most modern Americans associate the fedora with noirish characters of the 1930s, the term initially referred to a hat worn by a woman – Sarah Bernhardt -- who in 1882 at the time of her fascination with soft-brimmed, center-creased hats, was playing the part of a Russian princess in a Victorien Sardou play, Fedora. Bernhardt’s fashion choice inspired a rash of fedora-wearing women’s rights activists. Some years later, those 1930s nourish hoods liked the look, too.

Though the derby was being manufactured in the US as early as 1850, it didn’t earn its name until twenty years later, when that particular style caught on across the pond at the Derby horse races.

Sombrero entered English in 1770 from Spanish sombrero, a broad-brimmed hat. It heralds from sombra, or shade, & initially described a parasol or umbrella.

Beret entered English in 1827, from the French word béret. Before landing in the French language, beret travelled through Bearn, Old Gascon, Late Latin, & Middle Latin. Its Middle Latin form is the diminutive form of birrus, a large, hooded cape. It appears the word may have entered Middle Latin from Gaulish.

Etymologists don’t agree on the beginnings of the bowler. Some claim it was named after J. Bowler, a popular London hat maker of the 1800s. Others trace it back to the Old English grandmother of bowl, heafodbolla, meaning brainpan or skull. Those Old English folks really had a way with syllables, didn’t they?

Dear followers, did any hat word histories surprise you or cause a wrinkled brow? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED,

Thursday, September 13, 2012



As we approach the elections, news stories become increasingly easy to confuse with political advertisements. Though I’m generally a huge fan of fiction, when it comes to political reporting, I find myself in the Joe Friday camp.

That’s right Ma’am, just the facts.

When a news story involves a candidate’s claims of past successes, I expect the claims will be confirmed by the news source, and the results of this fact-checking will be included in the story. By definition, news sources should be involved in verifying their sources, in substantiating claims, in authenticating, & corroborating.

This brings me to celebrate once more, the synonyms entries found in any decent, grown-up dictionary. My 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary offers these synonyms & definitions for verify. These words, I submit, provide a healthy mantra for reporters, readers, listeners & viewers during this election season.

confirm is to establish as true, that which was doubtful or uncertain

substantiate suggests the producing of evidence that proves or tends to prove the validity of a previous assertion or claim

corroborate suggests the strengthening of one statement or testimony by another

to verify is to prove to be true or correct by investigation, comparison with a standard, or reference to ascertainable facts

authenticate provides proof of genuineness by an authority or expert

validate implies official confirmation of the validity of something

Dear followers, please respond by either complimenting news sources you’ve found that seem to see the above as part of the day’s work, or mentioning those sources that flagrantly ignore the above responsibilities. You might also suggest other mantras that might help us in these politically polarized times.  

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED, & Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1959.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Of the Cloth

Of the Cloth

Here’s a thematic dip into the etymologies of some common fabrics.

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, & wouldn’t you think coarse cloth would chap the hide of royalty?

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.

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 (I couldn’t resist). Seersucker 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 literally translates 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, & The OED.