Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Upholstery Leads to Etymology

I know I refer to etymonline.com a lot in my posts, but have I ever said how much I love that website?

It's a labor of love done by one guy, Douglas Harper, a newspaper copy editor (and double major in history and English, like me). He started multiple websites in the mid-1990s based on his various interests, but etymonline is the one that "grew legs":

Its birth is eccentric and probably unrepeatable. I couldn't do it today; the technology has gotten away from an amateur like me. Some people call it a gem. If it is, it's a pearl: The accidental production of an irritated oyster. Ask me why I did it and I'll give you a solid answer. And tomorrow I'll give you a different one. They're all correct. I tease myself along through the drudgery with a combination of guilt and vanity. If I did this right, I can say at the end of life I bundled up my worst qualities -- obsessiveness, impudence, narcissism -- and made something vaguely useful with them.
He describes the methods he uses the site's content here. The site was recently rebuilt and redesigned to work better on smart phones, which has been helpful most of the time, in my opinion.

Anyway, the word I was looking up today that made me want to mention the site was "upholstery." What a strange word, as is "upholstered." Do they have something to with holsters?

No. It turns out they both derive from "upholsterer":
upholsterer (n.)
"tradesman who finishes or repairs articles of furniture" (1610s), from upholdester (early 15c.; early 14c. as a surname), formed with diminutive (originally fem.) suffix -ster + obsolete Middle English noun upholder "dealer in small goods" (c. 1300), from upholden "to repair, uphold, keep from falling or sinking" (in this case, by stuffing); see uphold (v.).
"Uphold" itself is older:
c. 1200, "support, sustain," from up (adv.) + hold (v.). Similar formation in Old Frisian upholda, Middle Dutch ophouden, German aufhalten.
I would never have connected upholding and upholstering. Or have guessed that upholstery's roots  are more about the furniture and its state of repair as a whole than about the fabric on the surface.

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