Besides its usual sense as a noun for the plant used to make cloth, cotton is also a verb meaning to get along with, to like. You see it in phrases like take a cotton to. How did the word for the plant acquire this verb sense?
The verb to cotton originally carried a meaning, now archaic, of to take on a nap, to acquire a smooth, glossy surface. From the 1488 entry in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland:
Elne of cotonyt quhit clath to lyne the saim hos.
(An ell of cottoned white cloth to lie on the same horse.)
And there is this from a 1557 Act of Philip and Mary:
Every Yard of Cotton being fully wrought and Cottoned shall weigh one Pound at the least.
By the mid-16th century, to cotton had taken on the sense of to prosper, to succeed. It was especially common in the phrase this gear cottons. From Thomas Preston’s Cambises King of Percia, written c.1560:
How like ye now, my masters? doth not this gear cotton?
The reason behind this new sense is uncertain, but it may be related to the earlier sense of acquiring a nap on a piece of cloth. There is this from Thomas Middleton’s 1608 The Famelie of Love:
It cottens well; it cannot choose but bear A pretty nap.
And from the sixth edition of Edward Philips’ The New World of English Words (1706, ed. by J. Kersey):
To Cotton, to Frize, or wear Nappy, as some Stuffs do. Ibid. s.v. Cottum, In making Hats, To Cotton well, is when the Wooll and other Materials work well and imbody together.
And by the beginning of the 17th century, the sense of prospering had shifted to that of being in harmony, of getting along. From the 1605 Play Stucley:
John a Nokes and John a Style and I cannot cotton.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton