Q: The fabrics in our lives assume multiple meanings, as in, “I didn’t cotton to him because he tried to pull the wool over my eyes.” A topic for the blog?
A: Fabric and sewing terms are often used figuratively. To borrow a cliché of book reviewing, English is a richly woven tapestry.
We’ve written several posts about these terms, including one in 2008 about “cotton,” a word of Arabic origin that has been used figuratively since the 1600s to mean “get on together” or “suit each other.”
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an anonymous Elizabethan play about the life of the 16th-century English mercenary Thomas Stukley (also spelled “Stukeley,” “Stuckley,” and “Stucley”):
“John a Nokes and John a Style and I cannot cotton.”
(From The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley, 1605. The play is in The School of Shakespeare, Richard Simpson’s 1878 collection of Shakespearian apocrypha and other works associated with Shakespeare.)
Here’s a later example from Lady Anna, an 1874 novel by Anthony Trollope: “You see, she had nobody else near her. A girl must cotton to somebody, and who was there?”
The OED says the source for this sense of “cotton” is uncertain, but it suggests that the usage may come from the original meaning of the verb when it showed up in the late 1400s: to “form a down or nap” on cloth.
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the original meaning is from a 1488 entry in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland: “viii elne of cotonyt quhit clath” (“eight ells of cottoned white cloth”). An “ell” was roughly four feet; if a fabric “cottoned” properly, it was successfully finished.
In commenting on the evolution of “cotton,” the dictionary points the reader to a 1608 example from The Family of Love, a play by Thomas Middleton. The citation uses the verb figuratively to mean “prosper” or “get on well,” and at the same time harkens back to its original sense: “It cottens well, it cannot choose but beare A prety napp.”
In the early 20th century, the verbal phrase “to cotton on to” came to mean “to form a liking for” or “to get to know about,” according to Oxford citations.
Here’s an example for the liking sense from “Children of the Bush,” a 1907 short story by the Australian writer Henry Lawson: “I s’pose the fact of the matter was that she didn’t cotton on to me, and wanted to let me down easy.”
And this is an example for the understanding sense from See How They Run, a 1936 novel by the Irish writer Jerrard Tickell: “I don’t seem to cotton on to German somehow.”
As you’d imagine, the word “wool” in its original sense (the “fine soft curly hair” of sheep and similar animals) is very old, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the OED is from a glossary, dated around 725, that translates lana, Latin for “wool,” as uul in Old English.
In the 16th century, English speakers began using the noun figuratively in the expression “against the wool” (the wrong way).
The earliest OED citation is from The Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John (1531), by William Tyndale: “He wresteth all the Scriptures & setteth them clean agaynst the woll, to destroy this article.”
In the 19th century, the noun showed up in the expression to “pull (or ‘draw’ or ‘spread’) the wool over someone’s eyes.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from the April 24, 1839, issue of the Jamestown (NY) Journal: “That lawyer has been trying to spread the wool over your eyes.”
And here’s a “pull” example from the Sept. 29, 1842, issue of Spirit of the Times, a short-lived Philadelphia daily newspaper: “Look sharp, or they’ll pull wool over your eyes.”
In a recent post, we noted that the verb “sew” is often used figuratively, especially in the expression “all sewed (or sewn) up,” which showed up in the early 1900s to describe a situation that’s brought to a conclusion.
The first OED citation is from True Bills (1904), a collection of sketches by the American humorist George Ade: “The Man with the Megaphone Voice cut no Ice whatsoever, for they had him sewed up.” (The loudmouth was prevented from speaking at a formal dinner.)
The “yarn” one tells and the “yarn” one knits with may be related, but the evidence is uncertain. One theory is that the expression “spinning a yarn” comes from sailors’ telling stories while making rope—that is, twisting yarn.
The verb “weave” has been used metaphorically (as in “a richly woven tapestry”) since the 1300s, while the noun “thread” has referred to a narrative train of thought since the 1600s, and a series of messages or posts on the same subject since the 1980s. The adjective “knit” has been used metaphorically to mean joined since the 1300s, as in “a close-knit family” or a “well-knit” novel.
Here are the OED‘s earliest known examples of those and some other figurative uses of textile terms.
“chiffon” (light and delicate, like the diaphanous fabric): “Chiffon pumpkin pie.” (From Fashions in Foods, a 1929 cookbook published by the Beverly Hills Women’s Club.)
“embroider” (to embellish rhetorically, often with fictions or exaggerations): “The Græcian Historians and Poets, imbroder and intermixe the tales of auncient times, with a world of fictions.” (From The History of the World, 1614, by Sir Walter Raleigh.)
“fleece” (to swindle or overcharge): “The cardinall knowing he was well prouided of monie, sought occasion to fleece him of part thereof.” (From The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, 1577-87, by Raphael Holinshed.)
“homespun” (homely and rustic, like the homemade yarn or cloth): “Lest my homespun verse obscure hir worth, sweet Spencer let me leaue this taske to thee.” (From Thomas Watson’s Eglogue Vpon the Death of Walsingham, 1590.) “Eglogue” is an early spelling for “eclogue,” a short poem.
“knit” (joined, as in “a close-knit family”): “First body and saul togyder knyt.” (From the anonymous Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience, 1340.)
“plush” (luxurious, like the sumptuous fabric): “If one were to pass his life in moving in a palace car from one plush hotel to another.” (From the March 1890 issue of Harper’s Magazine.)
“tweedy” (casual, countrified, preppy): “Iris stood before them in tweedy brevity of skirt and pertness of tam-o-shanter.” (From Between Two Stools, a 1912 novel by Rhoda Broughton.)
“weave” (to create an intricate story or plan): “Wo! … seith the Lord, that ȝee [you] schulden do counseil, and not of me; and wefen [weave] a web, and not bi my spirit.” (From John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Vulgate Latin Bible into Middle English.)
“yarn” (a story): “Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.” (From a glossary of criminal slang in The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, 1819.) Despite this citation, the OED says the usage originated as nautical slang.
“thread” (a narrative train of thought): “If one read skippingly and by snatches, and not take the threed of the story along, it must needs puzzle and distract the memory.” (From James Howell’s Instructions for Forreine Travell, 1642.)
“thread” (a linked group of posts or messages): “When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.” (From a May 30, 1984, post on a Usenet group, net.news.)
“wooly” or “woolly” (hazy and confused): “It [a scene in a picture] looks woolly, undecided in shapes.” (From an 1815 issue of The Sporting Magazine.)
“tapestry” (a colorful and intricate mixture of things): “Nature neuer set forth the earth in so rich tapistry, as diuers Poets haue done.” (From An Apologie for Poetrie, written sometime before 1586 by Philip Sidney.)
We’ll end with the word “fabric,” which meant a building when it showed up in English in the 1400s. It didn’t come to mean a textile until the late 1700s.
English borrowed the term from French, but the Latin source is fabrica, the trade of a faber, a worker in metal, stone, wood, and so on (a carpenter, for example), according to the OED.
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is probably “a prehistoric Indo-European base meaning ‘fit things together.’ ”
The first example in the OED (as “an edifice, a building”) is from William Caxton’s 1483 translation from the Latin of Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend), a collection of stories about medieval saints, by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa: “He had neuer studye in newe fabrykes ne buyldynges.”
How did the English word for a “building” come to refer to cloth? As Ayto explains, “the underlying notion of ‘manufactured material’ gave rise to the word’s main present-day meaning ‘textile.’ ”
The first OED citation for this new sense is from An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea (1753), by Jonas Hanway: “We are every day making new fabrics.… No nation can make such excellent cloth as this.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add the reference to “cloth.”)
The dictionary’s next example, which we’ve also expanded, is from An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India (1791), by William Robertson:
“There they observed the labours of the Silkworm, and became acquainted with the art of working up its productions into a variety of elegant fabrics.”