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 candy.” Their etymologies have traveled to the Iowa State Fair from afar: Both cotton and candy have Arabic roots. Felt-tip and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.


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.”

E. A. Wallis Budge's entry for
E. A. Wallis Budge’s entry for khet en shen in his Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary. Budge helped popularized Egyptology, though his scholarship and theories are not considered without problems.

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”). 

cotton_scribblesm ∫ r ∫

4 thoughts on “cotton

  1. Linear B had “kito” (ki-to) for “tunic” which if it’s true that Ancient Greek χιτών ‎(khitṓn – rendered into English as “chiton”) was possibly a Semitic loanword it would seem to have made it a very early one? The Semitic root that gave Arabic قُطْن ‎(quṭn, “cotton”) old Arabic كَتَّان ‎(kattān) “linen” which could be from Akkadian “kitinnu” (“a linen garment”) seems to be connected with “linen” and “flax” and by extension garments made from such material.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. In French military slang there’s the word “guitoune” (pr. /ɡi.tun/) “abri de tranchée – a dugout shelter in a trench” which is derived from Maghrebi, Moroccan Arabic: قيطون ‎(qīTūn “tent”) from Arabic: قَطَنَ ‎(qaṭana, “to dwell”) which Wikipedia says is cognate with قُطْن ‎(quṭn, “cotton”).

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s