Whole cloth / Fabrication

Cloak of deceit.

Dear Word Detective:  I was just reading an old column of yours on the phrase “made it up out of whole cloth” to mean “lying” and wondered, given the textile reference, if there is any connection between “fabrication” and “fabric.” — Tim Maguire.

That sounds like the foundation of a bad pun, but it’s actually a good question.  Of course, that presumes that there is such a thing as a “good” pun, an assertion I would contest.  For some reason, probably born of a childhood trauma now buried in a cobwebbed corner of my psyche, I loathe puns. Feh.

Don’t mind me; I’m in a bad mood because I have to type this with an index finger badly bitten by an ungrateful cat.  Long story.  Where were we?   Yes, there is a family connection between “fabric” and “fabrication,” but the connection between “fabric” in the “cloth” sense and “fabrication” in the “lie” sense is very indirect, akin to that between two second cousins who  only met once, as children.

But before we proceed, we’d better take a moment to explain “to make something up out of whole cloth,” meaning to invent a story that contains not even a smidgen of truth.  “Whole cloth” has been used since the 15th century to mean a large piece of cloth in its original state, not yet cut up for sewing.  As a metaphor in use since the 19th century for a story completely invented out of thin air, “from whole cloth” carries the same sense of “starting from the absolute beginning” as is found in the phrase “starting from scratch,” which originally referred to a scratch or line drawn on the ground as the starting line for a race.

In the case of “fabric” and “fabrication,” the connection is a common root, the Latin noun “faber,” meaning a craftsman such as a carpenter or blacksmith.  The derivative “fabrica” meant “workshop” or “product,” and the verb “fabricare” meant “to make or build.”

That verb “fabricare” eventually gave us the English word “fabricate,” which appeared in the late 16th century with the meaning of “to make, construct or manufacture” anything that requires skill, but by the early 20th century “fabricate” had taken on the specific meaning of “to semi-finished materials into a finished product,” as one might “fabricate” bumpers from rolled steel.  (Whatever happened to steel bumpers, anyway?)  Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, that “make or construct” sense had led to the use of “fabricate” to mean “constructing” a story that was utterly untrue, which gave us “fabrication” meaning just such a lie.

The original meaning of “fabric,” when it first appeared in English in the late 15th century (derived via the French “fabrique” from the Latin “fabrica”) was, literally, “building”  (“A vaulted fabric without wood or iron-work, three stories high,” 1756).  “Fabric” went on to mean pretty much anything that could be built or manufactured, but settled down in the mid-18th century to being used in our modern sense to mean “textile, cloth.”  Interestingly, so complete has this narrowing process been that even figurative references to “the fabric of the universe,” etc., are usually based on this “textile” sense of “fabric” (“Faith in the Unseen and reverence for the Divine … are inwoven in the very fabric of our nature,” 1877).

So there is a connection between “fabric” and “fabrication,” but it has nothing to do with “whole cloth” and making stuff up.  Honest.

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