I already consulted Etymonline and Wiktionary.
Source: p 56. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (1991).

  Another word that has undergone a similar development is fustian. In its earliest sense
[4.] fustian is 'a fabric made from cotton and linen', but like bombast it too is now used to mean 'pretentious speech or writing'.
The word itself is from [3.] Medieval Latin fustaneum, whose origin is disputed. One account traces it to [2.] Latin fustis 'club, staff', as a translation of
[1.] Greek xylinon, literally meaning 'wooden' (from xylon, 'wood, club') but applied to cotton.
That such an origin is at least semantically possible is shown by another Medieval Latin term referring to cotton, lana de ligno, literally 'wool of wood'. Such a conception lies at the basis of the German word for cotton to this day, Baumwolle, literally 'tree-wool'. Another account de- rives fustaneum from the Cairo suburb Fostat (Arabic fusṭāṭ), where fus- tian is said to have been manufactured. Even on that route we wind up back at Latin, since fusṭāṭ, literally 'camp', comes (via Greek transmission) from Late Latin fossatum 'ditch, fosse'. See also DENIM.

What underlying semantic notions connect:

  1. 1 and 2 (i.e. 'wooden' + 'cotton' to 'club, staff')?

  2. 2 and 4?

  • 2
    Why do you not accept the quoted explanation? Incidentally, de Vaan connects fustis with futare ("to strike"), not Greek xylinon. Jul 12, 2016 at 14:50
  • @Nathaniel, as I understand it, the idea is not that fustis is cognate with xylinon but that the "cotton" sense of fustaneum is a loan-translation of that Greek word.
    – TKR
    Jul 12, 2016 at 17:33
  • @Nathaniel The problem is not my refusal to accept the quoted explanation; the problem is the citation's lack of explanation of the underlying semantic notions.
    – user37
    Jul 13, 2016 at 5:46

1 Answer 1


I can only make educated guesses, mostly about what the quoted paragraph is intended to mean, but these might help.

  1. Note that the Greek word ξύλινων primarily means "wooden". Using the word for "wood" for a club comes pretty naturally, since clubs are made of wood. Even in English, heavy (wooden) golf clubs are called "woods". In the connection from "wooden" (ξύλινων) to "club" (fustis), the notion of "cotton" plays no role.

  2. As I understand the quoted etymology, it says that people speaking Greek were referring to cotton using the word ξύλινων, by a somewhat inscrutable connection with wood also found in modern German. The hypothesis is, when someone wanted a Latin word for a certain kind of cloth, they thought to do in Latin what had been done in Greek: use the word for "wooden" to mean "made of cotton"; and then make a noun out of it. So, the hypothesis proposes that fustaneum arose from two somewhat strange analogies: first, wood–cotton; second, "Let's do the wood–cotton analogy in Latin analogously to what they're doing in Greek."

Note that the quoted etymology is trying to explain the origin of the English word fustian. It's not trying to explain the origin of the Latin word fustis—the origin of which is not known for sure. Even the origin of the Latin word fustaneum isn't known for sure. The whole thing is awash in uncertainty.

  • 4
    The wood-cotton connection isn't so strange if you think of cotton being introduced to a culture which is only familiar with wool. "This cotton stuff, it's like wool, but from a tree/from wood! Let's call it wood-wool."
    – TKR
    Jul 12, 2016 at 17:36
  • @TKR You must be a native speaker of German. :) Just kidding; that sounds very likely indeed. I hadn't thought of the plant that makes cotton for clothes as a tree, but I just did some googling and indeed it is. (I think of "cottonwood trees" only as the bane of air conditioners.) Sadly, I've never seen commercial cotton plants in person.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jul 12, 2016 at 17:50
  • 1
    +1. Thank you as always for your insight and aid. Please allow me to postpone acceptance to allow time for (changes to) other responses.
    – user37
    Jul 13, 2016 at 5:48
  • 1
    Good explanation. Let me add that in Finnish we call cotton "puuvilla"; "puu" means tree or wood and "villa" means wool. It might be a translated loan from German. (@Timere, it seems other answers might not be coming.)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Sep 14, 2016 at 22:57
  • Isn't it ξύλινον with an omicron, not an omega? The omega would anyway shift the stress on the iota, at least in Ancient Greek, so either ξύλινον or ξυλίνων. In fact, I would expect a stress on the last syllable, i.e. ξυλινός, ξυλινή, ξυλινόν, but that may just be me :).
    – MickG
    Jun 17, 2017 at 22:15

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