Q: I assume “chintzy” (gaudy, cheap, trashy) is derived from “chintz” (the multicolored cotton fabric). But chintz isn’t necessarily gaudy, cheap, or trashy. How did “chintzy” get its negative sense?
A: You’re right that the adjective “chintzy” comes from the name of the usually glazed printed cotton fabric known as “chintz,” which isn’t particularly inexpensive or garish.
The adjective got its negative sense in the mid-19th century when British textile factories were making cheap imitations of the original handmade chintz from India.
English borrowed the noun “chintz” in the early 17th century from Hindi, where छींट (chint) referred to the fabric. The Indian term comes from चित्र (chitra), Sanskrit for spotted or variegated.
The earliest English example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a list of trade goods in a collection of stories by sailors about their travels:
“Callicoes white and coloured” and “Pintados [floral cottons], Chints and Chadors.” From Purchas His Pilgrimage (1614), stories collected by the Anglican clergyman Samuel Purchas.
(Interestingly, the mention of “Cublai Can” and his palace at “Xamdu” in a 1625 edition of Purchas His Pilgrimage inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” according to the website of the British Library.)
The next OED citation for “chintz” is from an entry for Sept. 5, 1663, in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Bought my wife a Chinke; that is, a paynted Indian Callico for to line her new Study.”
The first Oxford example with the modern “chintz” spelling appeared about a century later: “Japan wares, calicoes, chintz, muslins, silks” (from The History of America, 1783, by the Scottish historian William Robertson).
The adjective “chintzy” began appearing in the 19th century, according to the dictionary’s citations.
The OED defines it as “decorated or covered with chintz; suggestive of a pattern in chintz.” And in extended use, the dictionary says, it means “suburban, unfashionable, petit-bourgeois, cheap; mean, stingy.”
The earliest Oxford citation for “chintzy” is from a Sept. 18, 1851, letter by George Eliot, pen name of Mary Ann Evans, to her half-sister Fanny Evans Houghton.
In this expanded version of the citation, Eliot is apparently using “chintzy” in the extended sense of unfashionable when she asks Fanny to choose a fabric for her:
“I should like a muslin with a more prevailing hue. The quality of the spotted one is the best, but the effect is chintzy and would be unbecoming. The one with the reddish flowers would have a better effect but the quality is not so good. I am sure you can judge what I want. If among the new ones, Bailey has a muslin with flounces, having a certain tone of colour not yellow or pink—in fact such an one as I know you would like—pray choose. I want poor old Mrs. West to make it while I am here, so I shall be glad to have it soon. Do not be anxious about it as it can be exchanged if unsuitable.”
So how did “chintzy,” an adjective derived from “chintz,” a luxurious hand-painted or hand-printed fabric from India, get this negative sense?
Sarah Fee, editor of Cloth That Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz (2020), says “chintzy” appeared at a time when “Britain’s factories had flooded world markets with cheap imitations of chintz.”
Fee, a senior curator of fashion and textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum, says the industrial imitations made the fabric “widely available to the masses, disassociating any original connotation of luxury.”
Finally, we should mention that “cheetah,” the name of the large, spotted cat, comes from चीता (cita), Hindi for the cat, and चित्र (citra), Sanskrit for spotted or variegated.