February 23, 2006

Polka Question

Why is a dot alone only a dot, but when joined by others a polka dot?

posted at 02:08 AM by raul

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02/24/06 01:25 PM


All the while doing the Postal Polka Two-Step.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know the origin of "polka dot"? A friend has been wondering for years about this and I would like to give him an answer. -- Ms. B. Koeppen, via the Internet.

You're never going to believe this, but I've been waiting years to answer your friend's question. Honest. Every morning I trudge out past the cows to the mailbox, murmuring "polka dot, polka dot" to myself in a hopeful mantra. But day after day I find the well dry, polka-dot-wise, and must face the long walk back past those smirking cows. Night falls, and I sit glumly in the corner at parties while my friends nudge each other and say, "Ask him about the goldurn polka dots, Bernice. I can't take any more of this." But it's not the same as a real reader question.

So now, at long last, The Polka Dot Saga. Back in the mid-19th century, the U.S. was awash in polka dots, that pattern of dots of uniform size and arrangement, because we had all gone polka-crazy. The polka, of course, is a simple, lively dance step that took Europe and America by storm soon after its introduction in 1835. The name "polka" is a minor mystery. Although "polka" is Polish for "Polish woman," the polka dance is actually of Bohemian origin, and "polka" may be a corruption of the Czech word "pulka" (half) referring to the short half steps involved in the dance.

None of which, I realize, explains polka dots, but I'm getting to that. At the peak of the polka craze, from about 1840 to 1890 (this was a very long craze), a variety of manufacturers cashed in on the public's polka-mania by naming a dizzying range of products after the dance. Polka hats, polka gauze, polka curtain ties, and, of course, polka-dotted fabrics, had little or nothing to do with the dance, but sold like hotcakes, for a few years anyway. The polka dot pattern, however, had staying power, and remains popular today, especially in neckties.

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