Last week, Donald Trump’s hot air inspired our look into bombast, where, for all of his bluster and braggadocio, we ultimately discovered the soft padding of cotton. They say all politics is local, but the etymology of cotton is global.
Cotton cropped up in Middle English (coton) during the late 14th century, taking the word from the French coton. The Oxford English Dictionary comments that cotton‘s “early use in Europe was for the padding of jerkins* worn under mail, and the stuffing of cushions, mattresses, etc.”
Other Romance languages show parallel forms, but it appears the French picked up the word from the Spanish coton. The Spanish, in turn, threaded the word from Arabic. Yes, you should thank Arabic quṭn (قُطُن) for the 100% cotton in your tighty-whities. But you might want to pack an extra pair, as we may be traveling all the back way to that home of the finest of thread counts, Egypt.
See, some etymologists speculate that the Arabic qutn was borrowed from an Egyptian source. Philologist Eric Partridge directs us to the Egyptian phrase “khet en shen.”
Khet names a “plant,” “tree,” or “shrub,” while en means “of” and shen, “hair,” yielding “hair plant,” hence the cotton plant. Cotton is now sounding an awful lot like another feature of Trump: his combover.
* A jerkin was a tight-fitting sleeveless jacket, often made of leather. An acton was such a padded one worn under armor. The word derives from the Spanish algodón, ultimately deriving from the Arabic al (“the”) and quṭn. (“cotton”).