Nappy versus Diaper

Have you ever wondered why Americans say 'diaper' and we say 'nappy'? If you're a bit of a language nut like me, settle in for a history lesson. Otherwise, feel free to visit more interesting pages of our website!

Following a discussion in an international Great Cloth Diaper Change organisers group, I started looking into the origin of the different words we use for what we put on our babies' bottoms, namely 'diaper' versus 'nappy'. Diaper is what they use in North America, and Nappy is the word used in the UK & Ireland, Australia, NZ and many other Commonwealth countries. But why the difference?

The short answer is that language developed separately in different regions - it explains all those difference: pacifier v dummy, biscuit v cookie, jelly v jam, as well as the whole spelling thing. But if you want to know where the words themselves came from, read on!

In English speaking terms, nappies weren't actually called either of these words commonly until the 19th century. From the medieval period onwards they were usually called 'clouts' (from cloth or patch) or 'tailclouts.'


The etymology of 'nappy' is quite boring. It's assumed to be short for 'napkin' - a word still sometimes used by grannies and you hear it used a bit in some Asian countries as well. The use of 'nappy' as we know it only dates from the early 20th century. Napkin is of late Middle English origin, and is from the Old French nappe for tablecloth (which had its own origin in the Latin mappa for sheet). Add the -kin on the end and you have 'little tablecloth' or 'little sheet'. It was another word for towels, handkerchiefs and other small cloths - we still use it for table napkins just like they did back then. Add the infant use and and it's easy to see how baby talk changes 'napkin' to 'nappy'. A pretty obvious name for your standard square flats, and it makes sense.


Now 'diaper' is WAY more interesting than 'nappy' and has a much longer history, even though it's associated with America!

The word diaper comes to English from Greek diaspros (from dia 'across' + aspros 'white') to medieval Latin diasprum, to Old French diapre. There are references to diaper fabric going back to the medieval period in France, when it meant a really fancy textile made of white silk, which was woven or flowered over with gold thread. By the 15th century, 'diaper' referred to a linen fabric woven with a small repeating diamond pattern. It also became a word to describe repeating decorative patterns in art, stained glass windows and architecture. The household accounts of the Duke of Norfolk record in 1466 the purchase of "Flemyshe stykes of fyne dyapere."

In the 1500s, diaper fabric was being made from cotton as well as linen and was being used for tablecloths, towels and small cloths. From 1513: "The tables were covered with clothes of Dyaper Rychely enlarged with sylver and with golde." & "Cover thy cupborde and thyn ewery with the towell of dyaper."


It is possible that Shakespeare (yep, him!) was the first to use the word 'diaper' to mean an item made of diaper fabric - in this case it was a hand towel (or 'napkin' - see the link?). From The Taming of the Shrew (1596): "Let one attend him with a silver basin/Full of rose-water and bestrew'd with flowers,/Another bear the ewer, the third a diaper,/And say 'Will't please your lordship cool your hands?'"

And here's another literary reference that links both our words. From Pepys' diary entry 12 November 1660: "From thence walked to my father's, where I found my wife, who had been with my father to-day, buying of a tablecloth and a dozen of napkins of diaper."

And here's another reference from 1840 noted by the Oxford English Dictionary: "A napkin..Of the best white diaper fringed with pink."

By the 19th century, diaper fabric with its distinctive weave was more commonplace and cheaper, and the term 'diapering' was used to refer to weaving a small, repeating pattern in cloth. And diaper-type fabrics were being used for babies.


And then a shift occurred.

In North America, diaper weave-type fabrics continued to be used for babies - with 'birdseye cotton' becoming the most common fabric for baby bottoms. Birdseye cotton is a woven cotton fabric with a distinctive diamond pattern (sound familiar???) and is what Americans think of as old fashioned square diapers. At some stage in the 19th century, American babies were wearing 'diapers' and it is still the term used today, though there are a wide variety of fabrics now used.


Modern Birdseye Cotton Flats

In the UK, however, they started producing cotton terry towelling fabric on an industrial scale in the mid 19th century and it became the most popular fabric for babies' napkins (along with muslin). Diaper fabric was still in use for tablecloths but not so much for babies, and perhaps that's why the British didn't adopt the word 'diaper' in the way the Americans did.

And for us in Australia, we followed the British usage, but used flannelette nappies as well as terry flats. Our mum, a midwife who came from Scotland to Australia in 1970, recalls: "When I arrived to work at the Royal Womens' Hospital, I looked all over the place on my first day on the postnatal ward for nappies, until an English girl pointed to a pile of flannelette squares and said, "That's what passes here for nappies." ... When you were both born [in Tasmania in the 1970s], I had a lot of trouble getting terry towelling nappies. The same applied to muslin - my mother sent them as they were hard to get."

It's all very interesting stuff, and I'm hearing more and more people calling nappies 'diapers' due to the American influence. I wonder what we'll be calling nappies in a century?

Some References

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