Polka (etymology)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Wed May 30 12:33:29 UTC 2001

>>Did those 1840s dancers and musicians wear clothes with this pattern?  Is
>>such a pattern in clothing known/common in Central Europe, or was it once?
>I don't know, but it may not be necessary.
>The polka (dance) became a world phenomenon very abruptly around 1843-4.
>The first citation of the word "polka" in OED is 1844, in M-W 1844, in the
>Svenska Akademiens Ordbok 1844. At about the same time (presumably
>slightly later) there appeared the noun "polka" = "polka jacket" (OED, 1844).
>Referring to MoA (Cornell), I find instances of "polka*" numbering
>0 before 1830,
>0 from 1830-1835,
>0 from 1835-1840,
>135 from 1840-1845,
>62 from 1845-1850,
>194 from 1850-1855,
>107 from 1855-1860,
>55 from 1860-65,
>In my earlier message, I show one instance of "polka spot" from 1846. The
>Mathews dictionary lists this expression as = "polka dot".
>Since the noun "polka" is attested in two senses from 1844 ([1] dance, [2]
>jacket]), the "polka spot"/"polka dot" can equally well be "a spot/dot
>associated with the polka dance" or "a spot/dot associated with the polka
>jacket". The latter seems intuitively preferable to me.
>In Web search, as I stated earlier, I find -- among VERY few instances of
>"polka jacket" -- one pictured with dots and another described as having
>"imitation ermine" (i.e., dots) -- these from 1856 and "ca. 1861". By
>comparison, among several dozen illustrations of women's attire of Civil
>War and earlier times on the Web, I find virtually no other dot patterns.
>Therefore I speculate that the pattern now called "polka dot" was
>relatively common on polkas (polka jackets) and relatively uncommon in
>women's clothing in general during the period 1844-1861. The speculation
>that "polka dot/spot" < "polka [jacket]" would seem to require that dots
>were characteristic of polka jackets as early as 1846 ... not demonstrated
>AFAIK but plausible, given the magnitude of the polka craze ca. 1844. As I
>said earlier, it may be speculated that the first dots might have been
>imitations of ermine trim, and this certainly did exist -- among the
>wealthy -- in Europe (and the US).
>[Note that I am not speculating that all or most polka jackets in 1844-6
>had dots, nor that no dot-patterned dresses existed otherwise. My
>tentative hypothesis will remain viable if -- say -- 20% of polka jackets
>had the dots, as compared with -- say -- 5% of ladies' attire in general.]
>-- Doug Wilson

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