July 27, 2022

Words of the Month - Linen for Summer

         You’ve probably seen plenty of advertisements touting linen as the perfect fabric for summer.  Words like “breezy,” “cool,” “airy,” and “breathable,” abound.  But those aren’t the only words associated with this ancient fabric.  Etymologically speaking, you may be surprised by all the words linen has given the English language.
        The world linen itself comes from Old English, but was probably borrowed into even earlier Gothic from Latin.  The Latin scientific name of the flax plant is Linum.  The -en on the end of lin- is the same -en suffix that we see on woolen, wooden, and brazen, and meant “stuff made out of the material.”  You can still see the lin without the -en in linseed oil, from which we also get medical ointment liniment and floor-covering-cum-art-material linoleum, both of which originally included linseed oil as an ingredient.
        Perhaps it isn’t too astonishing that the word linens expanded its definition to refer to the items that were most often made of linen, such as tablecloths and sheets, even though nowadays these household textiles are more likely to be made of cotton or synthetic fibers.  (This is comparable to silverware referring to forks and spoons that are no longer made of silver.)  Linen was also commonly used for underclothes, which is why we now call fancy underwear lingerie.  Of course we got that one by way of French, since mid-nineteenth century English speakers felt that made it sound classier than the crude English word under-linen.
        Another use for linen was lining, since, just like underwear, linen was the fabric you’d prefer to have next to the body rather than wool, velvet, silk, etc.  Linen fabric was also scraped to obtain soft fibers used for dressing wounds, from which we get lint.
        However, the most basic word linen has given us is line, in all its definitions from mathematics to sailing, lineage to limits, queues of people to telephone wires…  All from the fibers of the flax plant.  Line's earliest sense in Old English was a rope or thread, making the connection to the flax fibers obvious.  These strings were used by builders to mark out levels, and by the late fourteenth century the word line came to be applied to those straight marks, as well…  All those other definitions followed from the various uses and connotations of threads and marks, such as boundaries, continuous series of things, and so on.  Imagine not having lines without linen!
        Linen is fairly difficult and expensive to produce, and nowadays it’s not exactly a basic, everyday fabric.  However, the earliest evidence of linen textiles comes from the Republic of Georgia and dates back to about 28,000 BCE; it was the premier fabric of ancient Egypt; it was central to Roman culture; and it got a renewed boost in Europe from Charlemagne in the eighth century CE.  Its full scientific name is actually Linum usitatissiumum, which means “flax most useful.”  All of this makes it clear why a fabric that seems fairly niche today could have been culturally important enough to have given us so many words for so many basic things.

[Pictures: Advertisements for linen dresses, from The Housekeeper, July 1912 (Image from New York Public Library Digital Collections) and from 1956 (Image from VintagePaperHeaven);

Linum usitatissiumum, hand-colored wood block print by Heinricus Füllmaurer from De historia stirpium commentaruu insignes by Leonhart Fuchs, 1542 (Image from University of Cambridge Digital Library);

The Linen-Draper, wood block print from The Book of English Trades by C. & J. Rivington, 1827 edition (Image from Internet Archive).]


Joy Weese Moll said...

Lots of fun things. I really value my few linen pieces. They wear well and are remarkably cool.

One of my associations with linen is that it was the fabric of choice for abolitionists in New England, a way of boycotting cotton.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for stopping by, Joy. That's a great historical tidbit about the abolitionists. I had heard of some Quakers who would wear only wool for that reason, but linen sounds like a much better choice in the summer!

Linda Curry said...

Amazing how many words are associated with linen. I am replying to your comment on my A to Z. You have made me feel guilty because my road tripping stopped early. We are on a real road trip at the moment so I will endeavour to visit more blogs in my spare time. In the meantime I will pop over to your A to Z.