The Grammarphobia Blog

Cotton picking

Q: My nickname is Cotton and my gamertag on Xbox Live is Qutun. I chose that handle after reading that qutun is the Arabic word for cotton. But someone who studied Arabic told me recently that qutun does not mean cotton. I have also heard that the word “cotton” is a verb, yet I doubt that anyone uses it that way today. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

A: Ultimately, the English word “cotton” comes from the Arabic qutun (also spelled qutn in our alphabet). A press official at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington confirmed to me that qutun is indeed Arabic for cotton.

The original word passed from the Middle East to Spain, and from Spanish to other European languages. English got it in the late 13th century from the Old French coton. This is the rough history of the English word, as described in several etymology books as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, says several other words of Arabic origin (“amber,” “camphor,” “lute,” “mattress,” “cipher,” “orange,” “saffron,” “sugar,” “syrup,” “zenith” and others) entered English during the same period, “most of them having to do in one way or another with science or commerce.”

As for the verb “cotton,” meaning to take a liking, it’s still being used today. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which describes it as an informal usage, gives this example: “a dog that didn’t cotton to strangers.”

This figurative meaning, which dates from the 1600s, is derived from an older sense of the verb “cotton” in textile finishing. In the 1400s, to “cotton” meant to form a nap (like the pile on a fabric).

Here’s an OED citation from 1488: “Every Yard of Cotton being fully wrought and Cottoned shall weigh one Pound at the least.” If a fabric “cottoned” properly, it was successfully finished.

I hope you find this answer properly cottoned.

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