Where did this name for round circles of dye on clothing originate? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the dance of the same name?
In the 1840s, the polka was sweeping Britain and America. It was the latest dance craze, like the Charleston of the 1920s. In an effort to cash in on the fad, manufacturers began naming all sorts of thing polka. Polka gauze, polka hats, polka curtain bands and many other products with the polka name hit the market in the 1840s. Although, the actual term polka dot is not attested to until 1857. Of these, only the polka dot survives today.
Some examples of the this are from the Times of London, 8 November 1844:
Splendid and magnificent novelties...the Czarina, the Polka Pelisse, and Marquise Pelerine.
And from A.J.H. Duganne’s 1846 Daguerreotype Miniature:
A pair of patent-leather boots and a Polka hat were the extremes of his apparel.
The term polka dot first appears in the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book of May 1857:
Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear...surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots.
The word polka itself is of certain origin. To possibilities are commonly proffered. It could come from the Czech pulka, or half-step, pul meaning half. Or, it could be a blend of polonaise and mazurka.
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton