English Words We Commonly Use: Their Origins and Meanings

The English word  “mattress” comes from Old French matelas, and, that word came from the Norman conquest of Silicy in about 1091 A.D. How did that happen?

 

 

Words & Their Meanings

According to English Through The Ages by William Brohaugh our everyday life incorporated words from other languages. Here are a list of some interesting words we use and the approximate dates they entered the language:

Bed noun c. 700; verb c. 1100

Pillow noun c. 900

Feather bed noun c. 1000

Wire noun c. 900

Couch noun c. 1400 “type of living room furniture”

A Turkish Couch

Bench noun c. 1000

Bedridden adjective c. 1100

Homestead noun c. 975

Brass noun “the metal” c. 1100

Cotton noun 1300 from Arabic qutn meaning raw cotton; early English called this “cotton-wool” and Bombast and Bombazinefrom French bombazine and Latin bombasinum c. 1555 for “raw cotton”

Bedchamber noun c. 1375

Fustian n. 1200 special cotton-linen twill cloth created in Italy

Den noun c. 725

Cradle noun c. 1000; “birthplace” c. 1600

Bedstead noun c. 1450

Peter Flotner Depiction of a Bedstead
Peter Flotner Depiction of a Bedstead

Cushion noun c. 1305; “pin cushion” c. 1600; “cushioning” c. 1800

Blanket noun c. 1300; “blanketing layer” c. 1630

Coverlet noun as in “bedspread” c. 1300

Stool noun “three legged stool” c. 900

Bolster noun Old English from German c 725. This word may descend from an ancient Indo-Eurpoean root bholg.

Canopy noun c. 1385

Tick noun c. 1342 ” cloth covering for a mattress or pillow”

Parlor noun “living room” c. 1450

Tenement noun “residence building” c. 1400

Cottage noun “housing for poor” c. 1390; “small house” c. 1770

Curtain noun as in “concealing device” c. 1300

Desk noun c. 1365; as in “bookcase” c. 1570

Spinning Wheel noun c. 1425

Sofa noun 2. 1625 as a cushioned dais from the East; c. 1717 as a long, upholstered bench.

Dwelling noun c. 1400

Fan noun “cooling device” c. 1390

Cheesecloth noun c. 1400

Mattress noun c. 1300

Sleep noun/verb c. 900; “death” c. 1150; “sleepy” c. 1225

Furniture as a noun in 1539 was the conventional word for “any movable piece of property including provisions, supplies,and livestock”  winning out over the two other choices furnitude and furniment; all coming from the Norman conquest of England.

 

Where does the word “mattress” come from?

The English word comes from Old French matelas, and, that word came from the Norman conquest of Silicy in about 1091 A.D. How did that happen?  Silicy was occupied by Arabs from Africa after their conquest in 902 A.D. The Arabs brought many plants and trees, customs, and food, and some interesting loan words.

One of these words, al-matrah, came from the Arab root verb ta-rahameaning “to thrown down, or the place to throw down” or “place where something is thrown” or “a mat bed”; the common Arab daily use of this word was place where camp was made and where the sleeping mats were placed.

In the medieval period Arabs slept on cushions thrown on the floor. Matrahcame to mean a cushion or mat in Arabic and eventually passed into English as materas when the Crusaders and the Normans brought this custom of sleeping on cushions to Europe. The Anglo-Saxon word for “making your bed” meant “to prepare straw”. The mattress was a vast improvement.

The word mattress has had two meanings: (1) the bed or under foundation such as the original Arab use, (2) an article, stuffed with vegetation fiber or hair that is designed for sleeping.

In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary referred to a mattress as “a kind of quilt to lie upon”; “Their mattresses were made of feathers and straw, and sometimes of furs from Gaul.”

By the middle 19th Century into the early 20th Century most English dictionaries defined a mattress as  cotton stuffed into casing for sleeping upon.

We have this unique history to thank for an invention we use every day.

In the formative years of the American bedding industry, mattress was used as a foundation. The woven wire mattress was not directly slept on, but served as a foundation for cloth encasement, usually with cotton batting, we called a mattress.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary: Bed

“The sleeping-place of men or animals. The permanent structure or arrangement for sleeping on, or for the sake of rest. In some form or other it constitutes a regular article of household furniture in covilized life, as well as part of the equipment of an army or expedition. It consists for the most part of a sack or mattress of sufficient size, stuffed with something soft or springy, raised generally upon a ‘bed-stead’ or support, and covered with sheets, blankets, etc. for the purpose of warmth. The name is given both to the whole structure in its most elaborate form, and, as in ‘feather-bed’, to the stuffed sack or mattress which constitutes its essential part.”

From an English Will Dated circa 1424:

“I WUL THAT ILK OF MY SAID CHILDRE HAVE A BED, THAT IS TO SAY, COVERLET, TAPITE, BLANKETTIS, TOO PEYRE SCHETES, MATRAS, AND CANVAS”.

Caxton Chronicles, circa 1480:  “HE WAS IN HIS BED AND A SLEPE ON A FETHYR BEDDE.”

 

Cotton and Bombast

Cotton, first appeared in English around 1300. Its Middle English cousins Coton and Cotoun descend French Coton, Italian Cotone, Spanish Algodon that all come from Arabic Qutn.

A citation in 1555 says, “Mattresses made of cotton of the Gassampine tree”. In 1598, “Cloathes made of cotton ot bombast”.

Bombast was used in English legal documents about various cloths being produced in 1555 came from French Bombazine descended from Latin Bombasinum, meaning “raw cotton”.

 

 

The Sofa

Sofa, a piece of furniture for reclining or sleeping, enters English as a noun circa 1625 from the eastern countries where a cushioned dais for reclining was seen by pilgrims and borrowed from the Arabic word suffah meaning “bench”. By about 1717 the meaning of sofa was a long upholstered seat or couch.


 

Mattress Ticking:  The Word and the Product

The common word for mattress  ticking has an exotic etymology. Tick derives from the Greek word theka; theca was loaned to Latin. Itailian documents from about 1000 A.D. mention theka as a casing cloth for bedding or a mattress.

Fabyan’s Chronicle of 1305 writes of “federbeddes rypped the tekys & held theym in the wynde, that the feathers myght be bowyn away”. The Latin theca (a case) and Late Latin techa ( a linen case) was basically translitered into English by Fabyan.

The oldest records from the Eleventh Century  tell us that the first Italian textiles called ticking were fustian cloths; these were made with a linen warp and a cotton weft. Fourteenth century records noted barchants that were also the same linen-cotton construction.

The weaving expertise for making bed ticks was taken by skilled cotton weaver that migrated from Italy to Germany. By the 16th Century Nurnberg, Hof, Zwickau, Leipzeig and Chemnitz were all spinning and weaving cotton ticks.   Old High German adopted the word a ziahha. Those ticking production spread onward to Holland.  The Middle Dutch language had the word teke.

As an outcome of the Thirty Years War that devastaed muc of Europe, the ticking and cotton manufacture almost disappeared.

In England, under William III and other subsequent monarchs, skilled weavers and spinners were sought from foreign countries to come and develop England’s domsetci industry.

Domestic cotton cloth production seems to originate in 1561 when 406 persons were driven out of Flanders to England (because of religious persecution). Cotton cloth was cited in official English documents in 1595.

Fustian were likely a broad category including ticking. The word descends from Italian fustagno, Latin fustaneusthat probably derive from Fostat, a suberb of Cairo, Eygpy where the cloth originated. English adpoted the word as a noun in about 1200.

A new migration of weavers of ticking settled in parts of England near Lancashire. By the 17th Century, Manchester had become the prominengt production center of cottons, fustians, and ticking.

Ticking as a word and as a product officially arrived in England around 1365. The utility purpose of imported ticking was so great, even though domestic English ticking production took nearly 400 years to develop into a power industry, the use of ticking (as a word)  for bed products was mature.

Many people think of the word mattress ticking as an inexpensive, utilitarian ACA stripe product used on institutional, hospital, or hotel beds. Nothing could be further from the truth. The unique black stripe used in the popular mattress tick we refer to as “ACA” has been the same pattern for nearly 1000 years!

And Amoskeag Manufacturing Company’s ACA has a rich story unto itself. The words ACA became the subject of a trademark dispute between Amoskeag Manufacturing and D. Trainer & Sons, both textile and ticking manufacturers. It ended in the United States Supreme Court case 101 U.S. 51 and the ruling became case law for trademarks ever since!

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