denim / jeans
These two words for the same type of fabric derive from place names, but from the names of two entirely different places.
The word denim comes from the French phrase serge de Nîmes, or serge from Nîmes, a town in southern France. Gradually the latter part of the phrase became clipped into the modern denim. From Edward Hatton’s The Merchant’s Magazine of 1695:
Serge Denims that cost 6l. each.
Similarly, jeans also comes from a place name, this time from Italy, Genoa in particular. It comes from the French phrase jene fustian, meaning a type of twilled, cotton cloth from Genoa.
This name for Genoa comes from the Old French Jannes. The earliest English reference to Genoa as Jean is in the Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VII from 1495:
Cables...of Jeane makyng.
The sense meaning the cloth appears somewhat later. From Henry Swayne’s Churchwardens’ accounts of S. Edmund and S. Thomas, Sarum, 1443-1702 from 1567:
ij yerdes of Jene fustyan.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton