The riveting origins of “rivet”

In 1942, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller created one of the iconic images of World War II, of feminism, of America itself.

On a bright yellow background with bold white letters proclaiming “We Can Do It!”, his poster boasts a woman flexing her bicep in a blue uniform and red polka-bot bandana. She was inspired by a 1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley working at the US Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, as Seton Hall University professor James Kimble painstakingly determined.

Parker Fraley passed away at age 96 last Saturday, but she will always be remembered as Rosie the Riveter. But she wasn’t the firstRosie the Riveter, however.

Originally called “We Can Do It!”, now commonly known as the Rosie the Riveter poster (Wikimedia Commons)

Norman Rockwell’s May 29, 1943 cover for the Saturday Evening Post features a strong, assured, and bedenimed riveter who’s marked her lunchpail “Rosie.” She’s considered the first image of female wartime worker being dubbed Rosie

Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie” (Wikimedia Commons)

Rockwell’s Rosie alludes a popular, morale-boosting 1942 song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, “Rosie the Riveter”:

All the day long, whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory
Rosie, brrrrrrrrrrr, the riveter

The song helped spread the alliterative moniker for any woman taking industrialand traditionally malejobs during the Second World War, eventually including the woman on the Miller’s poster we know associate as the Rosie the Riveter.

In 1942, the name Rose was the 50th most popular girl name, according to the Social Security Administration, down from its peak at #14 in 1911 and 1913. The floral name, nicknamed Rosie, was a top-30 name between roughly 1880–1930, and has made a comeback as the 154th most popular girl name in 2016.

And Rosie’s riveting involved the mechanical installation of bolts, or rivets, to hold pieces of metal together for the likes of planes, ships, and equipment. We also call the little studs on our blue jeansrivets; they helped hold together pockets for 19th-century laborers, who wore (and tore) the material while working.      

A twisting, turning etymology

The original rivets were liked a clinched nail: fasteners whose ends were bent back or flattened onto the material they were driven into to hold together. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests this rivet in the early 1390s, its derived verb by 1450. But the earliest record of the form the OED has found so far? Riveter, as revettour, in a 1307 occupational name handbook.

The etymology of rivet isn’t so securely fastened, as it were. Etymologists take rivet back to the Middle French rivet, “a short pin or bolt,” from the Old French river, “to clinch, fix, or fetter.” Some have attempted a deeper origin in rive, a “shore” or “riverbank,” via the Latin ripa for the same. (Arrive also derives—yep, that one, too—from ripa, as do river, riparian, and rival.) Rivets, according to this etymology, mark edges or boundaries like shores do, a which sense has indeed been documented for the French rive.

Other etymologists find this explanation too fanciful, though. They look instead to the Middle Dutch wriven, “to put into motion” or “cause to stir,” whose description of the core action of riveting apparently founds its way into French. This wriven may be linked to the English verb rive (“tear or rend”), more familiar to us in its forms of riven; it’s likely from the Old Norse rifa, “to tear apart,” related to rift and rifle.

Ripa or wriven, Proto-Indo-European scholars might say it’s all a wash, as they ultimately reconstruct both words in the hypothetical root *rei-, “scratch, tear, cut.” The drop-off of a riverbank, in some ancient sense, was apparently understood as a kind of “break.”   

Riveting stuff, huh? This metaphorical extension the OED first cites for “fast” or “unwavering” in Edward Phillips 1658 Mysteries of Love and Eloquence, a kind of courtship how-to. In one passage, he lists various epithets commonly used of marriage:

Solemne, ceremonious, ingrafting, uniting, shackling, fettering, coupling, sacred, cementing, fruitfull, joyfull, chaining, riveting, captivating, geniall, feastfull, fruitfull, happy, succesfull, lawfull, stollen, manacling.

The OED find the adjective’s sense of “compelling” or “fascinating”—that is, holding one’s attention like a rivet—in Charles Dibdin’s 1800 Complete History of the English Stage. As he describes Hamlet:

Hamlet…with all its transcendent beauties, its prodigious strength, its fascinating charms, its rivetting interest, and its extraordinary variety, has more faults than the critics have time to tell.

When it comes to riveting, neither marriage nor Hamlet make it out with a fully rosy portrait now, do they?

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2 thoughts on “The riveting origins of “rivet”

  1. It comes from old italian word for a head covering called a vetta. The vetta later became an italian word for the head of something like a mountain or high passing point. Rivet basically means to refasten the headscarfe. There is an italian verb called rivettare which does not come from french or english. Always look to Italian the meanings of words of most of europe are in that language


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