Monthly Archives: February 2012


Paisley. Argyle. Cashmere. Polyester. Corduroy. Seersucker.  Madras. Aren’t fabric terms fascinating? Let’s look at some of them!

Paisley, cashmere and madras are words derived from places. Paisley, a design featuring feather-like teardrop shapes, is named after the town in Scotland where it originated. Cashmere, a soft wool, comes from goats in the kingdom of Kashmir in the Himalayas. Madras, a brightly-colored fabric, originated in Madras, India. Argyle is named after a Scottish clan whose tartan is similar to the diamond shapes of this pattern.

Polyester is a portmanteau (a word made from two others that are shortened and joined). Chemically speaking, it is a polymer joined with esters. Seersucker, like madras, is of Indian origin. The Persian words it is derived from literally mean “milk and sugar,” an apparent reference to the appearance of this fabric.

As for corduroy, I always thought this derived from “corde du roi,” which is French for “cord of kings.” It never occurred to me that this doesn’t make much sense, given the relatively cheap cost of this material and its ready availability. There is, indeed, no evidence that this is where the word originated. It’s one of those mystery words that English is full of. We’ll just never know where it came from. When I was growing up, corduroys were all the rage. I had a pair in quite a few different colors. Maybe they’ll come back again!

There are so many fun fabric words that I suspect this topic will be coming back again, also.


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Ut, a deer

We’ve all heard the syllables “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti” applied to the standard musical scale, especially if we like showtunes (which I do! “Doe, a deer . . .”). But where did we get these funny-sounding syllables from? I’ll give you a hint – it wasn’t Julie Andrews. Nope, not Rodgers and Hammerstein, either.

The syllables are called solfege syllables, used as an aid in teaching people to sing on sight. They were taken from the words of an old Latin hymn, “The Hymn of St. John.” They have changed slightly over the centuries, with the first and last ones different than originally employed. The scale used to be sung to “ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si.” You can see the origin of these note-names in the text of the hymn they were taken from:

Ut queant laxis resonāre fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes.

All this got me to wondering where we got “Fee, fi, fo, fum” from. I know it’s in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but did it originate there? Probably not. Like so many things, it may have its origin in the writings of Shakespeare, who used very similar language in his play King Lear several centuries earlier.

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I got an email today listing a bunch of paraprosdokians. I know, it’s a mouthful. It’s Greek. It means “contrary to expectation,” and refers to a sentence, especially a maxim or popular saying, that sets you up to expect a certain ending, and then gives a totally different and unexpected one – usually humorous. Probably the most famous paraprosdokian sentence is Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife – please!”

There was an episode of All in the Family years ago where Edith’s friend from the Sunshine Home, Mr. Quigley, was always citing paraprosdokians. One that I remember is “One good turn . . . gets most of the covers.” Winston Churchill is said to have been a fan of these sayings, as were comedians Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield.

Here are some of my favorites. Click the “comment” button to share yours!


“Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.”

“There are no stupid questions, only stupid people.”

“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

“On the other hand, you have different fingers.”

“The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on the list.”


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Making the grade

Half-dead. Totally unique. Nearly impossible. Almost perfect.

We all know what is meant by these common phrases, but when you examine them more closely you’ll see that they make no sense. Something is either dead, or it’s not. It cannot be qualified. The adjectives above, and many others, signify absolute states and they are therefore “non-gradable” (the “grade” being the words half, totally, nearly and almost). We like to grade them anyway, usually for extra emphasis (“Brand new!” “Totally naked!” “Absolutely free!”). Sounds better, doesn’t it? Advertising execs love to grade non-gradable adjectives.

Keep your eyes and ears open and you’ll no doubt come across one of these in your travels over the next few days (you might even inadvertently use one yourself, like I did in the last blog entry). Maybe you’ll ask your child if they’ve finished their homework, and they’ll say “almost!”  You know that means they’ll be done soon, but can we really  “almost finish” something? You might argue “yes” on this one, and you might be partially right. Ha! Did you catch that? You can’t be partially right!

Yes, I’m quite certain of that.

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