The Oldie

Words and Stuff Johnny Grimond


‘Stuff’ is a useful word, nowadays used to mean a ‘quantity of almost anything’.

Hence ‘Words and Stuff’ at the top of this column, and the ramblings that follow. But ‘stuff’ has long had a particular meaning of ‘material for making garments, woven material of any kind’. It’s this ‘stuff’ that interests me here, and particular­ly the names of its different varieties. This article could well be headed ‘Words for Stuff’.

You might think that the Englishspe­aking world would have found its own words for most kinds of cloth. The Industrial Revolution made Britain the world leader in textile production in the 19th century, just as slavery and Eli Whitney’s gin turned the American South into the Land o’ Cotton. But most of the English words for different fabrics predate mass production, and derive from exotic nouns.

Nothing new about that. English has always plundered foreign languages and it’s not really odd that many of its stuff words come from European sources. ‘Duffle’, after the town of Duffel, near Antwerp, is an example. Others are ‘poplin’, from French papeline, made in the papal town of Avignon; ‘organdie’, from the French organdi; ‘samite’, from the Greek for ‘six-threaded’; and ‘cambric’, the height of fashion in 1580, from Cambrai in Flanders.

But some stuff words come from much further afield. China has given us ‘chino’, ‘nankeen’ and ‘shantung’. Bokhara, in today’s Uzbekistan, has provided ‘buckram’. Asia Minor is the home of ‘angola’ (fabric made of angora wool), Damascus of ‘damask’ and Mosul, near Nineveh, of ‘muslin’, as noted by Marco Polo. Egypt is the source of ‘cotton’ (from the Arabic qutn), ‘fustian’ (from Fostat, a suburb of Cairo) and ‘dimity’ – so useful for stuffing bustles – which comes from Damietta, near the mouth of the Nile.

India, thanks to centuries of trade with Britain, has given English scores of stuff words: ‘calico’ (from Calicut), ‘cashmere’ (from Kashmir) and ‘chintz’ (from ‘speckled’ in Hindi), for starters. Among the others are ‘gunny’, Sanskrit for ‘sack’; and ‘jute’, from the Sanskrit for the ‘matted hair of an ascetic’, though the Dundee jute barons of bygone days may have preferred to believe it derived from a name for the fibre common in Orissa.

Uncertaint­y about the origin of stuff words is common. Does ‘gingham’ come from ‘ginggang’, a sort of Javanese ‘striped or chequered cloth’, or from Guingamp in Brittany? Does ‘diaper’, a ‘towel or rich cloth wrought with flowers’, have its roots in a French word for ‘diversifie­d’, or in the Belgian town of Ypres? A product made in Ypres is ‘d’ypres’ or, if you prefer Chaucer’s spelling, ‘d’ipre’, hence ‘diaper’ – just as a product from Nîmes is ‘de Nîmes’; hence ‘denim’.

Even when the derivation of a word is clear, it may be curious. Tweed was indeed made in the Scottish borders where the river Tweed runs. However, the word was born not of the river, but of a tradename arising from a misreading of ‘tweel’, a Scottish form of twill.

It’s striking how many stuff names come from place names. The names for other commoditie­s, such as cheese and wine, are similarly formed (think of Cheddar, Burgundy and Marsala), but the huge variety of stuff names reflects the extraordin­ary range of the trade in textiles. This in turn reflects not just the need for clothes and coverings, but also the vast appetite for new fabrics and fashions. The number of stuff words, nearly 270 in English, is also striking, particular­ly because most of them are for products in one of only five categories: cotton, linen, silk, wool and worsted.

One further oddity is that at least two stuff words – ‘bombast’ and ‘fustian’ – also mean ‘inflated speech’. Words and stuff can truly be one.

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