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Etymology — polka dot

by Bridget Blair AE

A while ago I had a song on the brain — that ridiculous old one about a woman in a too-small swimming costume — I won’t name it, because then you’ll get it on the brain, too. It set me thinking along a few different trains, but one of them was wondering, why is it polka dot? So, the etymology research began. 

I discovered that, as the name would suggest but despite any other apparent connection, polka dots are named for polka music and dancing. Like many a dance craze since, the polka was huge in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Dot-patterned fabric apparently became popular because it reflected the fun, light-hearted nature of the dance. According to the Oxford English dictionary, many other products were trademarked ‘polka’ to cash in on the craze, but the name of the pattern was the one that stuck.

Interestingly, in centuries prior, dots on fabric had been reviled because they looked too much like the rashes associated with disease. Quite different to the nostalgic, playful position they hold now. 

Bridget Blair is a freelance editor and Communication Officer for Editors Victoria.


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