Monday, October 19, 2009


I heard this word in passing a couple of days ago. I was startled by it. It's not that I didn't know what the speaker was talking about. I assume they meant 'jeans' or 'Levis'. What struck me was that it was a word I hadn't heard for quite awhile, though it seemed to be much commoner in my childhood.

As a child I just absorbed it with all the other words for things. It's only now that I think "Dungarees? Where in the world does that one come from?"

For entertainment value, I suppose I should guess before researching. For some reason I keep thinking of one of those Australian songs we learned in childhood, "Waltzing Matilda", probably because it comes from the same era as 'dungarees' in my life, and partly because it contained a lot of strange words I hadn't heard before--swagman, billabong, etc. I don't think this word is Australian, though. So I'll hazard a wager on it being yet another word that the invading Europeans stole from the native peoples. I think they call them "loan" words.

Time to find out the truth...

Well, what do you know? We've got another entry from India, folks! Turns out that 'dungaree' is based on a rough calico sort of cloth that was originally made in Dongari Kilda in Bombay/Mumbai. It was a poorer grade, loosely woven kind of cloth, and was often used as sailcloth. Sailors then recycled old sails to make clothing from it. Hence, dungarees.

It's also no surprise then, since this all stems back to a kind of cloth rather than a kind of clothes, that in some places, like western America, dungarees were synonymous with jeans, while in others, like England, and maybe Australia, dungarees meant overalls, because presumably that's what the cloth was sewn into,

I was comforted but still perplexed to read through various blog posts and find that other Americans also remember dungarees as a common reference in the fifties and sixties, but not used so much now. It's a shame, really, because it's a nice word that's traveled a long way to meet us.

...a few notes of clarification. I misread when I called it Dongari Kilda--it's Dongari or Dongri Killa, which apparently means Fort Dongari or something like that, as the British replaced it with Fort George in 1769.

A couple of other fabric names that I've since gotten curious about: denim, that trusty American cloth actually stems from serge de Nimes, Nimes being the French town where this heavy serge was first made. And blue jeans, which are practically as American as apple pie. Sorry, friend--these hail from Genoa, and 'jeans' is a transposition of the French word for that fair city. Blue stems from the indigo that was used as dye for several of these fabrics, though, the significance of that I have as yet to, ahem, unravel...

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Over on Brian O'Rourke's blog, he's advocating that American men, well, man up and stop being so afraid of cider. All this somehow led me to think about grog, the rationed drink of the Royal British navy. None of that has much to do with cider, as I found out.

What is grog when it's at home, anyway? Well, that would depend on its home apparently. But the word does have a very distinct point of entry into our vocabulary, namely, August 21st, 1740. This is when the British Vice Admiral, Edward Vernon, decreed that rum would henceforth be diluted with water or small (weak) beer on board. Apparently on rations of straight rum, the sailors under his care had become just a bit drunk and disorderly.

Unfortunately, that shipboard water was often rank. Various additives were used to remedy this, and one of them was fruit, of the citrus persuasion. What happened seems to have been accidental--the Vitamin C in citrus ended up helping prevent scurvy, that shipboard plague, and Vernon's crew beat the curve, healthwise. Figuring that he was doing something right, other officers were quick to adopt his practices.

He was known, I hope affectionately, as "Old Grog". Although initially I hoped this had something to do with his being the inventor of this elixer, it happened rather differently. The nickname came fron the "grogram" coat he wore. What's grogram? Well, it's a coarse fabric that is the equivalent of the French derived grosgrain, meaning large grained. I was going to say, it stems from this, but apparently there is an old French 'grogram' as well. They all seem to mean "roughly" the same thing.