The Word “Calico”

I was thinking about the origin of the word calico and decided I should do a little searching. One of the first things I found was this blog post, from a fun Google Search-themed blong, on the definition of “calico”:

Calico loom

Calico loom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First of all, the premise of the blog itself is interesting–Carly searches for any and everything on Google and posts the results of those searches. So Carly’s mention of the weavers of Calicut and the “calico” fabric that made its way to England made me think I’d better go to the source, the Oxford English Dictionary, to get the history of the word “calico”‘s adoption in English. Here’s the OED’s etymology for calico:

“Pronunciation:  /ˈkælɪkəʊ/

Forms:  α. 15 ( Calȝecot), callicutt, 15–16 calecut, 15–17 callicutcalicut, 15-16 calicute, 16–17 callicot. β. 15 kalykocalyco,calocowe, ( callagacallaca), 15–17 callico(e, 16–17 calicoe, 16– calico.
Etymology:  In 16–17th cent. also calicut , from the name of the Indian city (sense 1), called in Malayalam Kōlịkōdụ, in Arabic Qaliqūt, medieval Latin (Conti) Collicuthia, Portuguese Qualecut (V. de Gama), Calecut (Camoens). It is not clear how the form calico, occurring in 1540 as kalyko, arose; it may have been merely an English corruption; the French calicot has been suggested as the intermediate form, but the age of this is uncertain.”

So even the OED doesn’t know that much about it! I like how the etymology trails off into speculation–that a French word may have been involved–but doesn’t bother going into it. That’s lazy, or at least overly brief research, in my book! I’ll look into the French etymology of calicot another time and see what that yields.

Now here is another–more colorful (yes, calico)–definition of calico from the Free Dictionary:

Noun 1. calico – coarse cloth with a bright print

clothfabrictextilematerial – artifact made by weaving or felting or knitting or crocheting natural or synthetic fibers; “the fabric in the curtains was light and semitransparent”; “woven cloth originated in Mesopotamia around 5000 BC”; “she measured off enough material for a dress”
Adj. 1. calico – made of calico or resembling calico in being patterned; “calico dresses”; “a calico cat”
2. calico - having sections or patches colored differently and usually brightlycalico – having sections or patches colored differently and usually brightly; “a jester dressed in motley”; “the painted desert”; “a particolored dress”; “a piebald horse”; “pied daisies”

coloredcolouredcolorful – having color or a certain color; sometimes used in combination; “colored crepe paper”; “the film was in color”; “amber-colored heads of grain”

I particularly like that this definition brings in the word “motley,” “piebald,” and “pied”–I like that they are so many ways that we try to represent that mixed, the mutt, the blended, the brinded, and the tutti-fruitti that is our world.  I especially love the mention of “pied daises” in the definition above, because that brings us back to G.M. Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty,” which is the poetic theme song, if you will, for Catty Callie!

"When daisies pied" Swanage, Dorset

“When daisies pied” Swanage, Dorset (Photo credit: Alwyn Ladell)

The phrase “When daisies pied” comes from a song at the close of Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour Lost. It starts as a celebration of spring, but ends with a caution to married men to know that the sound of the cuckoo means they could be cuckolds:

“When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men . . . .”

And to close, here is a “pied” bird from India, to keep with the ‘calico’-came-from-Calcutta topic:

Pied Starling in India

Pied Starling in India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s