Fire up the Spiffifier!
Dear Word Detective: I visited a paper museum and they showed a “dandy roll,” which they explained made the watermarks by varying the compression of the paper pulp. While I can find examples of watermark usage, and even the person who invented the dandy roll, I cannot find why the thing is called a “dandy roll.” — John Myhre.
A paper museum? Fascinating. I remember paper. Made from rocks or something, wasn’t it? They used to print things on it before we had telephones for reading, right?
But seriously, here’s something a bit scary. My computer printer broke. Ten years ago. I never replaced it. I’ve written two books and more than 1,500 columns since then, and I’ve never printed anything out. If I have to send a physical note to someone, I use a pen I found at the bank.
There seem to be several elements to this question, so we’ll start with “watermark.” A watermark is a design or printed message, such as the logo or the name of the manufacturer, faintly visible in a sheet of paper, often best viewed by holding the paper up to a strong light. Watermarks have been used since the 13th century, and originally were created with designs formed with wires embedded in the molds used in paper-making. The term “watermark” arose because the marks resemble the effect of water on paper. Watermarks have also been used in postal stamps, official documents and paper currency to combat forgery.
The invention of the “dandy roll” in the early 19th century made the creation of watermarks much easier for paper-makers. A “dandy roll” or “dandy roller” is a finishing roller in a paper mill, used to “firm up” the paper (which at that point is not yet completely dry). The typical dandy roller has a perforated surface that can impress various subtle textures in the surface of the paper, and also carries the watermark design, which is pressed into the damp paper. You mention that you came across the name of the inventor of the dandy roller; Wikipedia credits someone named John Marshall in 1826, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that the device was patented by John Wilks in 1830, although his patent application did not actually use the term “dandy roller.” In any case, I think we can eliminate the possibility that the dandy roller was named after anyone actually named “Dandy.”
That leaves the common English word “dandy” as our logical suspect. The exact origin of “dandy” is, alas, unknown. It was first noticed in a Scots ballad in the late 18th century, and from there it became slang in London for the well-to-do and ostentatiously dressed “fops” of the period, as well as an adjective applied to anything ostentatiously fashionable or “smart.” One clue to the word, although it doesn’t really lead anywhere useful, may lie in the fact that “Dandy” in Scotland at the time was a diminutive form of the name “Andrew.”
As “dandy” spread in the 19th century it became a more positive term for anything fine, well-made or outstanding of its kind (“A cure for coughs I know, It will prove the dandy,” 1832). As an adjective, “dandy” came to be applied to anything considered “neat,” “tidy” or “trim,” including chickens (“Dandy-cock, a bantam cock, a diminutive species of poultry,” 1828). Applied to machinery, a “dandy” was an accessory or added feature that made operation easier, neater or more efficient, a sense which specifically, according to the OED, included our friend the dandy roller (“A channelled and perforated roller technically called a ‘dandy’, to remove part of the water from the pulp,” 1851). So the “dandy roll” or “dandy-roller” got its name by adding an important finishing stage to the paper-making process (and perhaps, in part, by making the finished paper itself neater and more “dandy”).