Hang a Louie on Washboard.
Dear Word Detective: In this morning’s paper, a local columnist (here in lovely but very warm Tallahassee, FL) discussed words and phrases disappearing from our cultural vocabulary. One of the words he claimed is fading is “corduroy” and cited as evidence that “some guy'” claimed he did not know what corduroys are. Well, statistically speaking, you might find a number of individuals on any day of the week who don’t know much about anything, but that’s another story. What it brought to mind is the root of the word and its relationship with ye olde “corduroy roads.” Wikipedia has entries for each of those but does not relate one to the other. By the way, I do wear corduroy pants and, sometimes, jackets in Tallahassee, but only in the winter, which lasts for a few days in January and February, most years. — Thomas Jacoby.
Well, the bad news is that the same “some guy” the columnist quoted is, even as we speak, quite possibly logged on at Wikipedia, composing a superficially plausible but deeply insane article on Mesopotamian history. I’ve always thought that the site’s motto should really be “Wikipedia — It might be right.” Incidentally, isn’t it odd that the Wikipedia article on “corduroy road” makes no reference to “corduroy” cloth, even though the founder and head honcho of Wikipedia is named Jimmy Wales? Never mind.
“Corduroy” is, of course, a fairly thick cotton cloth with prominent ridges (called “wales,” which explains that lame joke) used in pants and jackets worn in cooler climes. The word “corduroy” is often said to come from the French phrase “corde du roi,” or “the king’s cord” (“cord” being ribbed or tufted fabric). But Wikipedia quite correctly points out (mirabile dictu) that this story is unlikely to be true. An 1807 list of clothing manufactured in France mentions “kings cordes,” which is not French and indicates that the French name of the cloth was simply a reference to the English story of the supposed French source. Round and round we go. In any case, “corduroy” almost certainly originated in England, appeared in English in the late 18th century, and may be rooted in the English surname “Corderoy.”
“Corduroy roads” actually predate the word “corduroy” by several millennia, dating back to at least Roman times. Used in swampy or low-lying terrain, corduroy roads are constructed by laying large logs at right angles to the direction of the road, thus distributing the load of vehicles, etc., over a wide area and preventing traffic from being mired in the soft earth. The term “corduroy road” is an American coinage dating to the early 19th century, and is drawn from the resemblance of the side-by-side logs to the ridges of corduroy fabric.