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shameless pleading

Napkin

There’s food on your forehead.

Dear Word Detective: A common word I always found peculiar is “napkin.” Is there an English derivation for this? Any relation to “bodkin” or “pumpkin”? — Jim McGovern.

I actually answered a question about “napkin” many years ago, and the explanation of the word that my correspondent had heard from her mother was so bizarrely creative that I think it’s worth quoting her email to me: “My mother maintains that a ‘napkin’ used to be a kind of blanket that one would sleep (‘nap’) under, and that when the napkin was worn out people would cut it up into smaller pieces to use at the dinner table.” Eventually, I suppose, these “napkins” were cut into even smaller pieces and used by Mrs. Housemouse to cover her little mouse-children in their tiny matchbox beds. And baby bedbugs need bankies too, so I’ll bet it’s napkins all the way down.

As I explained at the time, the “nap” in “napkin” has nothing to do with the pleasant snooze you sneak at your desk after lunch. That “nap” comes from the Old English word “hnappian,” meaning “to doze or sleep lightly.” There’s also no connection between the “nap” in “napkin” and “nap” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, “the rough layer of projecting threads or fibers on the surface of a woolen or other textile fabric,” which comes from an Old English word meaning “to pluck.”

The root of our English word “napkin,” which first appeared in the 16th century meaning, as it does today, “A usually square piece of cloth, paper, etc., used at a meal to wipe the fingers and lips and to protect the clothes” (OED), lies in Latin. The Latin word “mappa” means “cloth,” and the same “mappa” also gave us our word “map.” When “mappa” was carried into Old French, the “m” became an “n,” producing “nappe,” which entered English as “nape,” a now obsolete word meaning “cloth.”

That same “nappe,” by the way, gave us the English “apron,” which was, in English, originally “napron.” Through a linguistic process known as metanalysis, the initial “n” of “napron” in the phrase “a napron” drifted over and fused to the article, producing “an apron.” Such metanalysis also transformed “a nadder” into “an adder” and the 14th century “noumpere” (from the French, literally “not a peer”) into our modern “umpire.”

Meanwhile, back at “nape” meaning “cloth,” back in the 13th and 14th centuries it was common to add the suffix “kin” to words, at first mostly proper names, in order to create a diminutive form. Beginning in the 15th century, this “kin” (which has roots in Dutch and is unrelated to “kin” in the sense of “family”) was appended to a fairly small number of nouns to add the sense of “small,” and “napkin” was such a case, giving it the logical sense of “small cloth.”

It’s actually unclear whether the diminutive “kin” in “napkin,” signifying “small,” carries the same meaning in either “pumpkin” or “bodkin” (meaning a dagger, needle or other sharp implement). The original form of “pumpkin” in English was “pumpion” (from the Latin “peponem,” melon), and the origin of “bodkin” is a complete mystery. Both words were apparently modified to end in “kin” as was common at the time, but neither word really carries that sense of “small.” Pumpkins are actually rather large for melons.

Incidentally, that “bodkin” has nothing to do with “Odd’s bodkins,” an emphatic oath meaning literally “God’s dear body!” common in 16th and 17th century English literature and a favorite of Shakespeare. The “bodkin” in the oath is actually a variant of “bodikin,” a diminutive (or, by extension, familiar or affectionate) form of “body.”

2 comments to Napkin

  • Lynne

    napery n. – tablecloths, napkins, and doilies. Derived from “nape”: cloth
    from the World Book Dictionary, 1969 edition

    Napery is general for table linens. If memory serves, I believe that, originally, only a tablecloth was placed on the table, and people used that to wipe hands and faces as needed.

    When someone realized that smaller cloths, put on the table for the express purpose of personal hygiene, would leave the tablecloth cleaner and in need of less-frequent washings, the diminutive form was likely coined to set them aside from their larger relative.

  • Topi Linkala

    How about the ‘nap’ in kindnapping?

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