Treasure Untold: Textile Words from India

English: Map of the British Indian Empire from...

English: Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The British Empire didn’t just enrich Mother England—it also enriched the mother tongue.  Today we’ll talk about the astonishing number of words from the Indian subcontinent that, thanks to the economic connections between India and Britain, describe a wide variety of textiles.

Bandana (from the Hindi and Urdu for tie-dyeing)
Calico (from Calicut, a city in Kerala)
Cashmere (from Kashmir, the geopolitically famous border region between India and Pakistan)
Chintz (from the Sanskirt word for spotted)
Dungaree (from the Hindi and Urdu word for a particular coarse kind of cotton; in effect, denim)
Khaki (from the Hindi and Urdu for dust-colored)
Seersucker (from the Hindi and Urdu for milk and sugar)

(Source: Merriam-Webster, online edition)

Note that all of these terms, save one, describe products made from cotton.  This is because India was the British Empire’s main source of cheap cotton fabrics until the southern United States became its largest supplier of raw materials (and British textile manufacturing began mass-mechanized production domestically).  Did you notice how many of the words describe not just cotton, but patterned cotton (bandana, calico, chintz, seersucker)?  It’s an underappreciated fact that clothing of the Georgian era (including, but not limited to, that of such august personages as America’s founding fathers) were not exactly understated, by current tastes.  In fact, men and women both proudly wore or displayed textiles with busy patterns and eye-searingly bright colors.

For further reading, consider picking up Victoria and Albert curator Rosemary Crill’s Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West.

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