“Digress” is my middle name.
Dear Word Detective: How did the “polka dot” get its name? — Chris Owens.
That’s an interesting question, but there was something about the way you phrased it that struck me as odd, and it took a moment before I realized what it was. One does not often, if ever, see the phrase “the polka dot.” As a matter of fact, you could argue (and I love to argue, which may be why I don’t get invited to more parties) that a single “polka dot” is not a “polka dot” at all, but merely a “dot,” and usually a pretty boring dot at that. Not like a microdot at the center of a spy story, or a suspicious dot on a satellite photograph, or even a dot of marinara sauce on your glasses after you’ve been eating spaghetti. Just a boring old dot.
Onward. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “polka dot” as “Any of a number of round dots of uniform size repeated so as to form a regular pattern, usually on fabric.” The term itself first appeared in the mid-1800s (“Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear … surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots,” 1857), and “polka dot” fabrics have been intermittently fashionable ever since. I don’t spend a lot of time monitoring current fashion, but my sense is that polka dot designs are (except among the preciously retro) considered uncool at the moment (“Wooden cutouts of Granny bending over in her flowerbed exposing her polka-dot bloomers,” At Home in Heart of Appalachia, 2001).
“Polka dots” are obviously “dots” (from the Old English “dott,” meaning “speck”), so the question is what “polka” has to do with the pattern. The “polka” is a dance, simple and lively as dances go, which took Europe and America by storm soon after its introduction in 1835. The name “polka” is itself a bit of a mystery. “Polka” is Polish for “Polish woman,” but the “polka” dance is actually of Bohemian origin. Some authorities believe that “polka” may actually be a corruption of the Czech word “pulka” (“half”), referring to the short half steps involved in the dance.
So, what does the polka dance have to do with polka dots? Essentially nothing. The polka craze, which lasted for several decades in the 1800s, was sufficiently intense to inspire manufacturers to append “polka” to the name of a wide variety of completely unrelated products in an attempt to capitalize on polka-mania. There were several items of clothing and even food labeled “polka” at the time, much as the prefix “cyber” was slapped on everything from TV news shows to dog food in the mid-1990s. Most of such “polka” tie-ins disappeared as the dance fad faded. “Polka dots,” however, survived (as did the polka itself).