Dear WD: What can you tell me about “wales,” as in “wide-wale corduroy”? Are these “wales” somehow related to Wales, the country? — Tarara Boumdier, Brooklyn, NY.
As one whose ancestors came from “Wales, the country,” I consider myself singularly qualified to answer your question. The answer is no — there is no relation between Wales, the country, and “wales,” the ridges characteristic of corduroy fabric. And after investigating the origin of fabric “wales,” I’m glad there isn’t, because thereby hangs a rather grisly tale.
The original sense of “wale” (in the Old English form “walu”) was “the mark of a lash” — the welt or stripe raised on flesh by whipping, a sense which survives today in the related form “weal.” The English word “wale” eventually came to be applied to almost any sort of ridge, band or stripe, from stone fences to the strip of wood around the top of a boat’s sides, now usually called the “gunwale” (pronounced “gunnel,” by the way).
Speaking of corduroy, this humble fabric has some surprising origins of its own. The word “corduroy” is an Anglicization of the French phrase “corde du roi,” or “cord (cloth) of the king.” Corduroy cloth was originally developed as a durable material from which to fashion the hunting togs of French kings, the heavy ribbed cloth designed to withstand the rigors of the brush. The corduroy of the French royalty was a bit fancier than the stuff we wear today: just for starters, it was made of silk.
Meanwhile, back at “Wales, the country,” that name comes from the Old English word “Wealas,” meaning “foreigner.” The name embodies a certain objectionable arrogance inasmuch as it was first applied to the native Celtic peoples of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, who were themselves invaders of the British Isles. The Welsh themselves call their country “Cymru.”