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Polka dot

“Digress” is my middle name.

Dear Word Detective: How did the “polka dot” get its name? — Chris Owens.

That’s an interesting question, but there was something about the way you phrased it that struck me as odd, and it took a moment before I realized what it was. One does not often, if ever, see the phrase “the polka dot.” As a matter of fact, you could argue (and I love to argue, which may be why I don’t get invited to more parties) that a single “polka dot” is not a “polka dot” at all, but merely a “dot,” and usually a pretty boring dot at that. Not like a microdot at the center of a spy story, or a suspicious dot on a satellite photograph, or even a dot of marinara sauce on your glasses after you’ve been eating spaghetti. Just a boring old dot.

Onward. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “polka dot” as “Any of a number of round dots of uniform size repeated so as to form a regular pattern, usually on fabric.” The term itself first appeared in the mid-1800s (“Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear … surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots,” 1857), and “polka dot” fabrics have been intermittently fashionable ever since. I don’t spend a lot of time monitoring current fashion, but my sense is that polka dot designs are (except among the preciously retro) considered uncool at the moment (“Wooden cutouts of Granny bending over in her flowerbed exposing her polka-dot bloomers,” At Home in Heart of Appalachia, 2001).

“Polka dots” are obviously “dots” (from the Old English “dott,” meaning “speck”), so the question is what “polka” has to do with the pattern. The “polka” is a dance, simple and lively as dances go, which took Europe and America by storm soon after its introduction in 1835. The name “polka” is itself a bit of a mystery. “Polka” is Polish for “Polish woman,” but the “polka” dance is actually of Bohemian origin. Some authorities believe that “polka” may actually be a corruption of the Czech word “pulka” (“half”), referring to the short half steps involved in the dance.

So, what does the polka dance have to do with polka dots? Essentially nothing. The polka craze, which lasted for several decades in the 1800s, was sufficiently intense to inspire manufacturers to append “polka” to the name of a wide variety of completely unrelated products in an attempt to capitalize on polka-mania. There were several items of clothing and even food labeled “polka” at the time, much as the prefix “cyber” was slapped on everything from TV news shows to dog food in the mid-1990s. Most of such “polka” tie-ins disappeared as the dance fad faded. “Polka dots,” however, survived (as did the polka itself).

17 comments to Polka dot

  • Rich Zak

    Dear WD

    Your discussion of “polka dots” reminded me of an episode of the now-canceled sitcom “Married With Children” (of which I suspect you’re a fan. I could be wrong but many Simpsons fans seem to embrace MWC humor as well). Anyway, Polk High School was Al “Four touchdowns in a single game” Bundy’s alma mater. Their cheerleading squad was named the Polk Dots. Cute, huh? Well, I thought it was clever. Will scripted TV ever regain its former glory?

    Rich Zak, Chicago

  • D Georgiou

    Where did the word peppernuts come from?

  • Bruce Krohn

    What is the nomenclature convention on polka dots? Is a yellow polka dot bikini yellow with other colored dots, or are the dots yellow and the background another color?

  • Stan Hood

    My 2nd Great Grandfather mentioned buying a “Polka Spot Cravat” from a supplier in Keokuk, Iowa for his store in 1855.
    He also bought and sold “knitting pins”

  • Margaret

    The real spelling should be POKER!!
    Years ago when households had a fireplace, a POKER was used to prod the burning embers within the fireplace.
    The POKER was made of iron and so became red hot. If the
    tip end of the red hot POKER touched anything, carpet or
    fabric, or paper for example a DOT would burn of course.
    The DOT was the size of say a 5cent piece…exactly the
    same and original size of the famous POKER DOT!
    But we children all knew that! In fact we used to make
    POKER DOT patterns on paper for fun…long time ago.

  • john

    we kids always said poker dot

  • Kathrynaya

    ….Haha…From my demented and wandering mind, I was also wondering where polka dots originated from. And I thought I was the only one to think of these sort of things, especially at three in the morning, when sleep evades me. Heh

  • Nadir

    Being that its called a Polka Dot might reference a Polka dance and how the steps bounced around as to leave dots after the steps. Think of it as the steps or dots left after they’ve danced.

  • Rollin

    Is it possible that the Polka Dot started in the Chech Republic ?

  • Dolores Poulis

    A Polish woman in Polish is called Polska!

  • Nathan

    Though I cannot offer proof of this, I have heard it said that the word was derived from the Greek word “poikilois” which means “various” or “many”.

  • Roxanne Richardson

    The Polish pelisse/polka jacket was a popular type of outerwear during the polka-craze period, commonly trimmed with ermine, which is white, and the back tail tips are attached to the fur in regular intervals. Knitted versions of the jacket had the trim knit in white yarn, with little tufts of black yarn attached at regular intervals to simulate the black tails. Perhaps these regular intervals of spotted contrast on polka jackets inspired the name to be applied to woven fabrics with a dotted pattern.

  • Diana

    I would agree very much with Margaret’s version of the origin… poker dots

  • Olivia

    POLKA DOT..(poker dot ) describes a shape, not a dance.
    Moon-face describes a shape, not a moon.
    Diamond cut describes a shape, not a diamond. Box jacket describes a jacket, not a box.

    Therefore, polka dot ( poker dot ) describes the shape of dots on fabric, clothing, artwork etc.
    Margaret’s description Nov 27 2915 seems the most logical o o o o o

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