Cotton (On) To.

My wife asked me about the colloquial phrase cotton to ‘take a liking to,’ and (as often happens) I had no idea where it came from, so I did some research and discovered nobody else really does either. The OED, in an ancient entry (first published 1893), gives the primary sense of the verb as “To form a down or nap on; to furnish with a nap, to frieze,” adding that it’s obsolete, and various other senses (“To furnish or clothe with cotton”) before getting to branch II, the figurative senses, “To prosper, succeed, ‘get on’ well. Obs.,” ” To ‘get on’ together or with each other; to suit each other; to work harmoniously, harmonize, agree,” “To agree, to fraternize,” and “To ‘take’ to, attach oneself to; to become drawn or attached to,” of which it says “The original notion in branch II is uncertain.”

So I turned to The Phrase Finder, which has an entry Cotton on to that gives a full discussion, beginning with the information that the phrase cotton on to in the sense “To get to know or understand something” “appears to be limited in usage to the UK and other countries that were previously part of the British Empire, notably Australia and New Zealand. In the USA, especially in the southern states, ‘cotton to’ is used, with the slightly modified meaning of ‘take a liking to’.” It then goes into theories of origin:

As early as 1648, in a pamphlet titled Mercurius Elencticus, mocking the English parliament, the royalist soldier and poet Sir George Wharton used ‘cotton’, or as it was spelled then ‘cotten’, as a verb meaning ‘to make friendly advances’. ‘Cotten up to’ and ‘cotten to’ were both used to mean ‘become friendly with’. Whether this was as a reference to the rather annoying predisposition of moist raw cotton to stick to things or whether it alluded to moving of cotton garments closer together during a romantic advance isn’t clear. […] ‘Cottoning on’ as we now use it derives from the meaning of ‘attaching oneself to something’, specifically an attachment to an idea that we haven’t encountered before. It would seem to be a reasonable bet that at least one of the variants of this phrase would have been coined in one of the major English-speaking cotton producing regions of the world, for example India or the USA. Not so; which gives more credibility to the notion that this phrase has little to do with the cotton plant.

So it remains a mystery, but at least we know a little more than we did before.


  1. How curiously fascinating. The sense of the word nearly seems like velcro–a sticky attraction.

  2. There seems to be a possible logical progression from the older(?) sense of cotton as ‘ A woollen fabric of the nature of frieze’ – frieze being ‘A kind of coarse woollen cloth, with a nap, usually on one side only’

    Then you get ‘cottoning well’ in a literal sense – cloth ‘form[ing] or tak[ing] on a nap’, and in various figurative senses of specific things which ‘cotton well’ when they’re doing what they’re supposed to, before you get into cottoning together and cottoning on and so on.

    (Quotes from OED)

  3. In Ireland I’ve only ever heard the idiom used in the sense “get to know or understand something”.

  4. Likewise Britain; to “cotton on” is to realise what’s going on. “Unaware that the service had been cancelled, Mark had been standing at the deserted bus stop for over an hour before he cottoned on.”

  5. “Cottoned on”, in the sense of “realised what’s going on”, is very like “caught on”.

  6. Yes, it is. I wonder if there was an antique past participle form of the verb “caughten”? As in “Yes, he’s caughten on to it now”.

  7. It’s very unlikely. The vowels of caught and cot(ton) are only the same in the western U.S. and Canada, not anywhere else in the anglophone world.

  8. While at it, the etymology of cotter (as in cotter-pin, a pin which keeps a wheel from moving off its axle) is marked as ‘completely unknown’, perhaps by way of cotterel. I have no idea about that one either.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    not anywhere else in the anglophone world

    Unless you want to count Scotland – on which the American merger has occasionally been blamed.

  10. Oops, yes, of course Scotland too.

  11. Well, it looks like the use of cotton as a verb to convey the idea of extreme closeness, adherence, be it to human beings (friendship and liking) or to ideas (understanding) comes from a literary origin. If so, it could have undergone a process of univerbation and reduplication of the preposition after its unexpected popularity with the illiterate masses due to the similarity between the phrasal ‘caught on’, presumably already in use, and the new verb ‘to cotton’. Maybe people started confusing the two forms so much that they became synonyms, and ‘to cotton’, having replaced a phrasal verb, got its preposition as well… Of course I have no evidence to support this theory and all I’ve written above is pure speculation, but these things happen in languages more often than we imagine.

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