Pieced Work began as a compendium of etymologies – the histories of interesting words (to this writer at least) found while doing book research. The archive is below.
An aubade is a piece of music for the morning (and traditionally the open air), or a morning love song, as opposed to a serenade, a love song for the evening. From Occitan aubada, auba – ‘dawn’, from Latin alba, ‘white’.
Belonging to the World
The words map and mundane come from Latin mundus, ‘universe, world’. Mundane literally means, ‘belonging to the world’. Map is a shortening of the Medieval Latin mappa mundi, or cloth of the universe (mappa, cloth, on which a map might be drawn + mundi, from mundus). Mundus comes from a Greek to Latin translation of the word kosmos, which has various meanings, including: to establish good order, to arrange; to decorate, to adorn (especially in reference to women’s clothing). Pythagoras applied kosmos to mean ‘the firmament’ and this use was expanded to mean ‘the universe’.
It’s interesting to see the paths a word takes – where it begins and where it settles, for now. Brume means fog or mist, and comes to English from the 14th Century French brume (fog or mist), from Old French brume, which meant wintertime. But we start with the Latin bruma, winter, which the online etymology dictionary suggests comes from brevis, meaning short (brief): winter’s days being the shortest of the year.
Chintz is a type of printed cotton cloth. The word comes from Hindi, chint, meaning ‘bright, clear, many-coloured, distinctively marked’ (the word cheetah has the same origin.) Rose Cumming (1887-1968), a Sydney-born textile designer and interior decorator who made her career in New York. Stranded there (while en route to Paris) in 1917 because of transport issues related to WWI, by 1921 Rose had a decorating business alongside an antique and fabric shop. She designed and printed her own textiles, and was particularly fond of chintz. Marlene Dietrich was a client. Rose famously hated lamps, instead using black candles to light her rooms at home, but was also the first person to leave her shop lights on overnight to attract customers. Rose’s story continues with her great-niece, Sarah Cumming Cecil, the president and principal designer at Rose Cumming, based in Portland, Maine.
Copper is named for one of the important places it was mined – Cyprus. We get the word copper from Latin cuprum or cyprium: metal of Cyprus (from Greek, Kyprios). Copper salts give minerals a blue or green colour and were often used as pigments… Paris Green and Egyptian Blue are examples.
A Fen is a marsh or moor – the word in Old English is fenn: mud, dirt, moor, marsh – and the word has its origins in proto-Germanic. The Fens are an area in eastern England: originally wetlands, much of the area was drained for use as agricultural land. Parts of the Fens are now being restored. Dye-plants like woad, weld (gaude), meadowsweet, fennel and the evocatively named purple loosestrife grow in the Fens. Beauty junkies who like Borghese Active Mud, fango is the Italian and Spanish word for mud, and has the same origins.
In Act 4 Scene 4 of The Winter’s Tale, Perdita and her adoptive family celebrate ‘the year growing ancient/ Not yet on summer’s death nor on the birth/ Of trembling winter.’ Perdita is dressed as the Queen of the Feast, her boyfriend (Prince) Florizel disguised as the humble shepherd Doricles. Perdita worries that King Polixenes, Florizel’s father, will pass by and discover their relationship – and while they’re dressed in a way that reverses their social positions. She says,
Should I, in these my borrow’d flaunts, behold
The sternness of his presence?
Flaunts are extravagant clothes, to flaunt is to show off while wearing them. Of course at this stage no one knows Perdita is a princess. For an update on The Winter’s Tale, in which everyone wears whatever they like, see Jeanette Winterson’s excellent The Gap of Time.
The English word fool appeared in the 13th century and comes from fol (Old French), derived from Latin follis, ‘bellows’ or ‘inflated ball’ – a fool being a person full of hot air and possibly empty-headed (fol is also the French word for a Blacksmith’s bellows). Imagine the Fool from a Tarot deck. Possibly, he’s about to slip off the precipice; then again, in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot A.E. Waite says he is wearing ‘gorgeous vestments’ and that ‘he is the spirit in search of experience.’ Not so bad, then, to be a little foolish.
Garance, Indigo, and Gaude
Garance, indigo and gaude are words which refer to the colours produced by plant dyes used in traditional fabric dying. Garance produces a red dye, indigo a blue dye and gaude a yellow dye. Garance refers to a red dye made from varieties of the Madder plant. Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum) was used extensively in French textile production. A problem for French textile workers was getting the red colour developed in France to match the intense red made in India – it took 100 years and some spy work to discover the process Indian dyers used to make their special bright red. Indigo is from the Latin indicum, in turn from the Greek indikon: ‘blue dye from India’. In the Mediterranean it was originally referred to as annil, ‘the indigo shrub’. Gaude is an Old French word for Weld (Reseda luteola), a plant used to make a strong, yellow dye. Weld has been used for thousands of years until being superseded in the early 20th century by synthetic dyes. The Reseda plant includes the variety Mignonette (Reseda odorata), a flowering species that was a favourite amongst Victorian Londoners, who planted it in their window boxes to form a perfumed barrier between their noses and the dubious smells of 19th Century London streets.
Linden trees – also known as lime (though with no connection to the fruit) or basswood – are found across the Northern Hemisphere. The word linden is from Latin lentus, flexible – in English, lithe, and German lind: lenient, yielding. Linden trees are robust – bending but not breaking – and have been known to stand for 1000 years. Lime-blossom honey and perfumes are made from the tree’s flowers, and the flowers, wood and leaves have been used to treat anxiety, restlessness, stomach ailments, headache, fever and infections. Linden trees have been referenced frequently in literature, from the madeleine in Swann’s Way – dipped into lime-blossom tea – to Coleridge’s Lime-tree bower and Nick Cave’s Lime-Tree Arbour. They are considered important in Slavic, Germanic and Greek mythology: in Slavic mythology the linden, ‘lipa’, is a sacred tree; Unter den Linden is the avenue in Berlin that stretches from the Berlin City Palace to the Brandenburg Gate; in German folklore the linden is the tree of lovers, while The Three Linden Trees is a fairytale by Hermann Hesse, inspired by the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias.
Since the 1960s the term luddite has meant someone who refused or feared to use new technology. 200 years ago Luddites were an organised group of textile workers who, rather than fearing new technology because it was unfamiliar, worried that their wages would be diminished as mechanised looms replaced hand looms. Between 1812 and 1817 the Luddites destroyed mill machinery – their main target was the stocking frame, a knitting machine. Many of the Luddites were imprisoned or transported to Australia. The Destruction of Stocking Frames Act 1812 meant that judges could bring the death penalty for the destruction of machinery, which they did from 1812-13, and again in 1817. The Luddites took their name from King Ludd, a character inspired by the tale of a man named Ned Ludd, a textile worker who in 1779 was believed to have broken two stocking frames. Lord Byron, who sympathised with the movement and argued vehemently in parliament against Acts allowing capital punishment for the breaking of machinery, wrote this poem about the Luddites.
Textile terminology has evolved from myriad sources but often the etymology involves the name of a place or town. Paisley gets its name in English from the Scottish town that produced most of this printed fabric in the early 19th century. The Argyle pattern is the tartan of Clan Campbell from Argyll (also in western Scotland). Muslin comes from Mussolo, the Italian for Mosul, Iraq, where mussolina/muslin was produced. In other parts of Asia it was known as ‘daka’, named for Dhaka, Bangladesh (where it’s thought the fabric originated.) Liberty’s Tana Lawn fabric is named for Lake Tana in Ethiopia where the cotton for the fabric was grown, while lawn is a mis-rendering/anglicisation of Laon, a town in France where large amounts of fine linen were made. Angora wool takes its name from the capital of Turkey, Angora, now Ankara (from the Greek ankyra, ‘anchor’.) Calico: from Kozhikode, India, known in English as Calicut; denim, from the French serge de Nîmes; organza, from a medieval form of Urgench, a town in Uzbekistan; and satin, from Zayton, Arabic for the Chinese port city of Quanzhou. Fabric names tell a global story about travel, trade, and empire.
Murex Mussel Muscle Mouse
Murex or, much less interestingly, rock snails, are a genus of tropical-sea dwelling predatory molluscs. Tyrian or Royal Purple, a deep red with a purple tint, is a dye made from the mucus of these creatures. First used over 3000 years ago, the dye was highly prized by the Romans. It was difficult to extract and therefore expensive and, unlike many other natural dyes, the colour improved with age and exposure to sunlight. Use of the dye continued until the mid-15th Century when Europeans turned to cheaper sources for red and purple. The word murex is Latin – the Greek word is myax, ‘sea mussel’. Myax is related to the word mys, which in Greek means both muscle and mouse. This link between muscle and mouse exists in Latin, German and Arabic. The connection developed from the idea that many muscles, especially biceps, were considered to have ‘the shape and movement of a mouse’. Thus muscled and mousey come from the same base word. And the predatory murex? Probably more mouse than monster. Far more dangerous the emperors who wore the purple-hued robes, or the harvesters – who needed 12000 murex to make two grams of dye.
Nasturtium can mean watercress or the garden variety, the shared name refers to the effects of eating the plant’s peppery leaves. Nasturtium, from Latin nasus tortus, ‘twisted nose’ or ‘nose tweaker’.
Panache (French) means a plume or tuft of feathers, and comes from the Latin pinnaculum, ‘small wing or peak’, which is the diminutive of penna, ‘feather’ (from where, in English, we get quill and pen). The figurative sense of panache – charisma, dash, flair, flamboyant courage – is a reference to King Henry IV of France, hedonist and military leader, who encouraged his troops to follow the white feather (panache blanc) on his helmet as they rode into battle. Panache as an ideal finds its embodiment in the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, in Edmond Rostand’s play (1897). Apparently, before Rostand created the character of Cyrano, panache was not a good thing to possess, in fact it was a dubious quality. Post Cyrano, having panache was an asset and the play, in translation, introduced English audiences to this concept. Cyrano: soldier, musician, poet and brilliant duelist, believes himself unloveable because of his large nose, which denies him his ‘dream of being loved by even an ugly woman’ (!). In love with beautiful and wealthy Roxanne but certain he will be rejected by her because of his appearance, he instead supports and promotes her relationship with the handsome but witless cadet Christian. Posing as Christian, Cyrano writes clever, romantic letters to Roxanne, which he then delivers to her on Christian’s behalf, through the thick of battle. The word is notably mentioned at the play’s tragic end. As Cyrano is dying, he claims that there is one thing he will take with him as he leaves the world: his panache.
Historically, genealogical charts showed ancestral line with a small, branched sign that looked like a bird’s footprint. Pedigree, from the Old French pied de gru, ‘foot of a crane’.
Salary and Salt
A salary is a regular payment for work, as opposed to an hourly or per-piece wage (piece-work). Salaries, and thus organised work, have been around for some twelve thousand long years. The concepts of payment, salt, work and a livelihood have been linked for over 2500 years. Pliny the Elder said that Roman soldiers were paid with salt and the word salary comes directly from this link. But whether the payment was in salt, or in gold coins the soldier could use to buy salt, is unclear. A salarium may more accurately be described as ‘a soldier’s allowance for the purchase of salt’.
Sequins give a luminous quality to whatever they adorn: they’re luxurious and glamorous; it’s no surprise to discover the historical meaning of sequin is ‘a small gold coin’, either Italian or Turkish. The word starts with the Arabic sikkah ‘a minting die’. A minting or coin die is a type of mould – it contains the inverse of the image to be struck onto the coin. Prior to being minted, coins were made individually and engraved by hand. From sikkah the word moves to the Italian zecca ‘a mint’, then to zecchino, a Venetian gold coin, and finally to the 17th century French sequin. By the 19th century the coins were no longer in use and the word sequin came to mean a bauble or spangle. Coins have been used throughout the centuries to decorate garments and accessories.
Spinster was a term for a female spinner of thread. Spinning wool was a job women could do, in medieval times, to make enough money to live well and independently. Following from this, a spinster came to mean, quite simply, an unmarried woman. During the 16th Century, partly as a result of Martin Luther’s writing being widely circulated (aided by the new printing press), which detailed the link he saw between marriage and being devout, spinster began to have a negative connotation. By the 20th Century, despite 400 years of women proving otherwise, spinster meant not just an unmarried woman but had become a term of judgement – a spinster was an unmarriageable woman – the opposite of the word’s historical meaning.
Sullen comes from the Middle English soleyn, meaning ‘apart’ or ‘singular’, from the Latin root solus, ‘alone’. In the late 1300s the word’s meaning shifted from alone to gloomy – so now we say sullen to mean glum. In his poem In My Craft or Sullen Art Dylan Thomas uses the word in both senses.
O’er faded heath-flowers spun, or thorny furze,
The filmy Gossamer is lightly spread;
– Charlotte Smith from Sonnet LXIII: The Gossamer
Gossamer is the thread-like spider web seen on plants and in fields, most noticably in late autumn. From Middle English, gos (goose) and summer. Originally it refered to the time of year, when geese were in season, then the meaning changed to what could be observed at that time. A related word is the Swedish sommartrad, ‘summer thread’.
If something is tawdry it’s old and scrappy but worn as if it were elegant and beautiful. It’s the adjective use of the noun tawdry: a ‘tawdry’, until the late 17th century, was a woman’s necktie. The word has been shortened several times: St. Audrey’s lace, a ribbon or necktie sold at the annual St. Audrey’s Day fair, held in Ely on October 17th, was altered in the mid-16th century to tawdry lace (keeping the t from saint). St. Audrey or Etheldreda was a 7th century East Anglian princess and the Abbess of Ely (Etheldreda is a Latinised form of an Old English name that means ‘noble strength’). St. Audrey is commemorated with a lace necktie because of the throat problems she suffered, which she believed were punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces when she was young. St Etheldreda’s church can be found in Ely Place, London. It is the oldest Catholic church in England and one of two surviving buildings in London dating from the reign of Edward I (1272-1307).
Text means ‘the wording of anything written’. It comes from the Latin texere, ‘to weave’ – from which we also get the word texture. One of my favourite books on the connection between writing stories and making cloth is by Isabella Ducrot: Text on Textile, a meditation on fabric, myth, and story.
“Whenever we say ‘to lose the thread of an argument’, or ‘to weave a story’, we imply that the thread is continuous and irreversible, and that it upholds the meaning of what we say. In textile terms, this continuity is more a quality of the weft than of the warp. It is also true that when we say ‘the thread of a story’ (or in Italian, the trama, meaning both ‘plot’ and ‘weft’), the word ‘thread’ expands its meaning metonymically and refers to more than a single element: it refers to the very structure of the story; or, we could say, to its texture.”
– Isabella Ducrot
In weaving, the weft thread holds the warp threads together – breaking it breaks apart the fabric. Writers are weavers, and recyclers: binding words together to create a story, retelling as they go.
The modern name for the blue-green mineral – one of the very first to be mined – comes from an Old French word for Turkish. The name dates from the 16th century when the mineral was brought to France from Turkey. Turquoise was thought to have protective and preventative qualities, and to change colour depending on its wearer’s state of health, and fortune.