I have always been passionate about the etymology of words, their origins. Also, because of my early years of study as English translator and sign language (four years anyway), I had the opportunity to discover many things about French and English linguistics. Did you know, for example, that French and English were very close to history? Today, I want to share with you my research on the linguistics of knitting.

Take something to drink, something to eat, settle in confortably and let’s go for a trip back in time ! 

The basics

English is a very rich language. Its origin is still a subject of debate among many linguistics. English is classified as a Germanic language, which means that it is closely related to other Germanic languages ​​such as Swedish, Dutch and German. The other dominant linguistic family in Western Europe is the group of Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish … all these languages ​​are from Latin. Unlike other Germanic languages, English shares a large part of their vocabulary with French and Latin, often attributed to the period of Norman French rule in England after 1066 (Ladies and gentlemen, on your left you can observe the Battle of Hastings that propelled William the Conqueror to the throne of England). During the reign of William the Conqueror, Norman French became the official language of government, church and upper classes in general in England. English becomes then the language of the masses, the language of the people. For nearly 300 years, French remained dominant and thousands of French words were used in the English language. Most of these words are still used today especially in the academic and administrative fields.

Why do I speak about English for etymology? According to my research, I noticed that the etymology of knitting in English was much more interesting, rich and old than that of French. This corresponds to the history of knitting, which has been exported to France little by little.

The word : “knit”

The word “knit” is used in English 1000 years AD. It is a derivative of the ancient term “cnyttan”, which means “knot”, which was its first meaning. It is in 1530 that we use for the first time the term “knit” to designate the creation of an object by weaving a series of loops with two needles. On the French side, it is at the end of the 16th century that “knitting” (“tricoter” in French) means “performing a work in intertwined stitches, with special needles “

From the verb, derives the common name “tricot” (which means “knitting” in English) in the late 1500s. It was originally a knitting stitch, one of two basic points that make up all the work, then came the meaning related to the articles made by this means (“delicate knits to wash by hand”). In France, the term appears in 1660 to designate the knitting needles, then in 1681 to designate the knit stockings and hosiery.

The word : “purl”

The origin of the word “purl” goes back to the 1300s. Just like “knit” it did not refer to the origin to the point that we know. “Purl” was first referred to the gold and silver thread used for embroidery, then to the embroidery itself. Because of the preciousness of silver and gold, purl embroidery was often used as a border. In the early 1500s, the term “purl” referred to a particular type of lace made as a border.

The first use of “purl” to designate the knitting stitch comes from what researchers believe to be the first written knitting pattern in existence: a model for making stockings in a book called “Nature exenterata”. At the end of the book, there are tips on breeding horses, in the manufacture of dyes through the patterns of knitting. In French, we say ‘mailles envers” or “jersey” but I have not managed to find etymology related to these terms.

The word : “cardigan” 

The art of knitting is much older than the terms associated with it. Take for example the cardigan. Although jackets and vests already exist, the term “cardigan” will only apply in 1862 for English and will appear nearly a century later, in 1960 in French.

The cardigan was named after the seventh Earl of Cardigan (which was a county of Wales). James Thomas Brudenell was known as a very shrewd man and his name was given to the wool vests slit in the front that helped fight the winters in Crimea.

The word : “raglan” 

The word “raglan” honors the name of the commander of Lord Raglan (1788-1855) commander-in-chief of the British army in the Crimean War. During the war, Raglan wore a loose overcoat with sleeves that extended to the neckline instead of stopping at the shoulder. Originally, “raglan” refers to the coat, it can now also refer to the sleeve style (“a raglan sleeve sweater”) or to a raglan sleeve clothing (“a raglan cardigan”). Raglan was used for the first time in 1857.

In France, the term is used for the first time in 1858 and then designated a “mantle cloak fashionable under the Second Empire”

The word : “intarsia” 

Borrowed from English, this technique makes it easy to knit a large pattern. The balls of color are knitted at the same time as the main color but are at the back of the knitting project.

Intarsia takes its name from a woodworking technique from Italy. The intarsia then referred to a wooden mosaic made of different species and assembled inside the frame. In English, the term is very recent because the first written proof of this word dates back to 1867. The term was applied to the knitting technique in the mid-1900s.

The word : “skein” (écheveau in french)

The origin of the term “skein” is more complex. Indeed, this one is quite discussed within the linguists. It would probably come from the Latin “scabellum” which means “stepladder” which would have been used to designate the reels (called “escanha”) which resembling to certain stepladders in X, then, by metonymy (small reminder, it is a stylistic device which consists in designating an object by another as in the expression “throw an eye”), we would have gone from reel to skein. The old Provencal would not have helped us by designating by “escabel” at the same time the reel, the skein and the stool. In this place, I think that I will have lost 70% of my readers, but to finish it is in 1165 that one will find the term to designate the set of yarn threads folded together.

These are the few etymologies of words that I found particularly interesting.

I hope you enjoyed this article and that you will learn new things about knitting 🙂

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