The weather is getting warmer, so you might start to see men arrayed in stylishly rumpled seersucker suits (especially in the American South). On the latest installment of Slate's podcast Lexicon Valley, I followed the thread of seersucker all the way back to its Persian roots, and then looked at how both the fabric and the word spread around the world.
The original Persian name of the fabric, with its signature stripes and crinkled surface, was shir o shakkar, literally "milk and sugar." Persian shakkar is, in fact, the source of the English word sugar, by way of Arabic, Old Italian, Medieval Latin, and Old French. The Persian word can be traced back to Sanskrit śarkarā, meaning "gravel, grit," which gives you a sense of what sugar must have looked like in traditional methods of removing the sweet stuff from sugar cane.
It's also a clue to why "milk and sugar" was an appropriate metaphor to name the striped textile. The stripes alternate in both texture and color, and the darker, rougher stripes would correspond with sugar, and the lighter, softer stripes with milk. During the Mughal Empire, when Persian was the prestige language of the court, shir o shakkar entered Hindi and other Indian languages, turning into sirsakar along the way. Then it was Anglicized in the seventeenth century when the East India Company began exporting seersucker and many other Eastern fabrics back to Great Britain, for local use and for re-export elsewhere, including to the American colonies.
The Oxford English Dictionary currently dates seersucker back to 1722, but I discovered examples of the word a few decades earlier than that by looking at cargo listings for East India Company ships arriving in London. On Nov. 16, 1694, a broadside announced that two ships, the Charles the Second and the Sampson, had come into port carrying tea, shellac, saltpeter, pepper, and dozens of different kinds of fabric. Among the fabrics (along with damasks, ginghams, and taffaties) were seersuckers (2,057 pieces).
It would not take long for Indian seersuckers to make their way across the Atlantic. In fact, the 1722 example cited by the OED is from an American source. It shows up (spelled as "sea sucker") in a ledger item in the papers of the wealthy planter Charles Carroll of Annapolis (collected in a 1925 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine). Carroll listed items sold to Mrs. Mary Overard, including "corded dimothy" (dimothy was an alternate spelling of the fabric name dimity) and "1 sea sucker D°" (D° was shorthand for ditto).
Another early American example comes from 1736 (this time spelled "seesucker"), again with an Annapolis connection. An item in the Virginia Gazette reports on servants fleeing an Annapolis household, and the servant woman took with her a "seesucker gown." I've found other early examples in Philadelphia newspapers referring to runaway servants wearing seersucker garments: a 1737 item tells of a runaway "Irish servant man" wearing "a seersucker vest lin’d with linnen," and a 1742 item has another servant wearing a "seersucker cap.”
Eventually, the cotton industry in the South would allow seersucker and other textiles to be made locally, not imported from faraway lands. It was particularly well-suited to warm Southern weather, but through the nineteenth century it remained chiefly a workingman's fabric. That changed after World War I, when Ivy League types "dressed down" and made seersucker stylish. As late as 1945, Damon Runyon, a colorful writer and a bit of a dandy, had this to say of seersucker in the New York Journal American:
I have been wearing coats of the material known as seersucker around New York lately, thereby causing much confusion among my friends. They know that seersucker is very cheap and they cannot reconcile its lowly status in the textile world with the character of Runyon, King of the Dudes. They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue.
The introduction of wash-and-wear seersucker in the 1950s greatly popularized its use in jackets and suits, and now seersucker is often seen as having a kind of nostalgic, retro appeal. It's come a long way from the days of Persian milk and sugar.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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