polka dots

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun May 27 16:06:42 UTC 2001

>Ideas, anyone?

Several ... of dubious value ....

The conventional story has it that "polka dots" were named after the polka
(the dance). Apparently the polka became popular ca. 1845 (and apparently
the etymology of the dance's name is somewhat uncertain itself). The
earliest instances of "polka dots" which I find at a glance are from 1881.
The "polka" fishing lure cited from 1883 used spotted guinea-fowl feathers
and I would guess it was named after the polka dot.

Why the pattern would be named after the dance is not clear to me. FWIW,
the "polka" in "polka dot" is (nowadays) usually not pronounced the same as
the "polka" applied to the dance. I find multiple examples on the Web of
"poker dot" and "poke a dot" in the sense of "polka dot" -- just misspellings?

Speculative alternatives:

(1) < Polecat dot ... "Polecat" is applied to spotted skunks (genus
Spilogale) as well as to striped skunks. Textile sellers might like to
alter the name for a more palatable connotation.

(2) < Poke-a-dot ... a lattice of dots from which one can select one --
perhaps in a form of gambling (punchboard or punchcard).

(3) < Poker dot ... like the dots on playing cards (usually called "spots"
but note that the variant "polka spot" also existed).

(4) < Greek "poikilos" (by metathesis) ... cf. "poikilitic" ("irregularly
speckled") (geology), "osteopoikilosis" ("spotted bones") (medicine).
Perhaps some early 19th Century trade name used the lofty Classical word.

(5) from some now-forgotten association with President Polk (maybe his
trademark necktie?).

(6) < Polska dot [or so] ... from some pattern (perhaps in embroidery)
considered characteristic of Poland.

Etc., etc.

Is there any firm evidence that the name came from the name of the dance?

If "polka dot" did come from the dance name, there are various possible

(1) a pattern considered stylish or aristocratic, suitable for those
dancing the polka (compare "polka troops" = "gentlemen soldiers" from 1847,

(2) a pattern reminiscent of polka sheet-music ... would this have more
notes than waltz sheet-music, for example?

(3) a pattern resembling that drawn on the floor in teaching the polka.

Etc., etc.

-- Doug Wilson

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