Phrases from fabrics


This 19th-century word meaning "of inferior quality" reaffirms that recycling is nothing new. "Shoddy" came into usage during the American Civil War when wool was scarce and uniform suppliers had to figure out a new source of fiber. Wool rags were collected door to door to be turned into yarn and then into new cloth. This reclaimed wool was called "shoddy" from the Saxon "to shred or tear apart." Cloth made entirely of shoddy may have looked good, but it stood up poorly to the demands of war. Soldiers issued shoddy uniforms watched them unravel in the wind or dissolve in the rain.

After the war, "shoddy" applied to most anything cheap or second-rate.

In the buff

The word "buff" originally came from Greek, referring to the treated hides of African animals like the antelope and buffalo, which had great commercial value in the ancient world. When the word passed into Latin as bufalus, meaning buffalo, the sense of tanned hides and their color went with it.

In the early 19th century, "buff" applied to the devoted volunteer firemen in New York City whose winter coats were yellowish brown, or buff-colored. From these enthusiasts (all well-to-do men in fashionable buffalo skins) came the sense of a fan, like a fire buff. Any polishing cloth of that buckskin color was called a buffing cloth, and to polish or to rub meant to buff.

Today, in the buff means to be dressed in one's own hide, and in a more colorful sense, to have one's bare skin tanned in the sun.

SOURCES: 'A Browser's Dictionary,' by John Ciardi; 'Dictionary of Word Origins,' by Joseph Shipley; 'The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson; 'Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins,' by W. and M. Morris; 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,' by Ivor Evans.

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