The seams of language: textile names bind molecules and continents together

We wrap them around us… but have you ever considered the origins of the names of clothing material?

In English, organic fabrics have diverse origins. Sometimes these are Germanic in origin, such as wool, sometimes Latinate, as in cotton. Sometimes, the whole span of Indo-European languages comes into play, with soft cashmere taking its name from the region of Kashmir in South Asia.

As technology has allowed for the development of new fabrics, so language has developed too.

For example, did you know that hard-wearing, resilient denim has its origin in a small French city?

Textile makers in the city of Nîmes, in Southern France, wanted to produce cotton that would rival counterparts of other producers, such as those of Northern Italy. In the end, though, their French cotton ‘de Nîmes’ – literally « of Nîmes » – became a distinct fabric in its own right.

With the invention of synthetic fabrics, coinage took even more novel turns.

Polyester gets the first part of its name from the multiple (poly) nature of the hydrocarbon bonds that keep its molecules together, and the second part from a mutation of the « ethaline » that is a tribute to the dialcohol that combines with the acid.(Think of alcohols’ composition… ethanol.)
Still, at least it’s less of a mouthful than ‘polyethylene terephtalate’. It’s hard to see that name being in any fashion catalogue.

Nylon’s origins, meanwhile, have raised even more questions. While the likely theory goes that the name is merely an artificial creation, a brand name designed purely to sound pleasing to the ear, a more exotic theory is that the name is a contraction of the names of the cities « New York » and « London », which were two cities that key scientists flew between when inventing the fabric. NY and Lon… nylon.

Either way, it’s a significantly easier origin (or pair of origins) to remember than molecular chemistry…

Can you go into depth with the idioms in this article? Try this quiz:

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