Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Say the word jeans and most people will conjure up the same sort of image: a rugged pair of pants, probably blue, made of a fabric called denim. Denim and jeans go hand in hand so much that denims is a fairly common synonym for jeans, as well as a word to describe a pair of denim overalls.
It isn’t uncommon for a particular cloth or weave to be named for the place where it originated. Damask, chambray, and suede, for example, all derive from place names (Damascus, Cambrai, and Sweden). What is uncommon, though, is for two words derived from the names of two cities in different countries to converge in the way that jeans and denim have.
Jean as a cloth comes from the phrase jean fustian, a modern spelling from the mid-16th century of Gene fustian. Fustian is a type of twilled cotton cloth. Gene (or Genes) is a Middle French spelling of Genoa, the port city in northwestern Italy. Jean fustian, or just jean, was a particular fabric that was manufactured in and distributed from Genoa, Italy.
Denim, on the other hand, comes from Nîmes, near the southern coast of France. Serge is another type of durable, twilled cotton fabric — the word deriving from the Latin sericus “of silk.” Cloth-makers in Nîmes manufactured a type of serge that was called, naturally, serge de Nîmes. This entered English as serge denim in the 17th century.
Which fabric — jean fustian or serge de Nîmes — more closely resembles today’s denim? I have no idea. My interest is in the history of language, not textiles. But the next time you pull on a pair of blue French/Italian trousers made from an Italian/French fabric, pause a moment to bask in the wonderment of our wild, multifarious, multicultural, multidimensional jigsaw puzzle of a language.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now