A letter in Sunday’s NY Times Book Review section made me wince, smile ruefully, and then wince again:
To the Editor:
Caroline Weber’s interesting review of “Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon,” by James Sullivan (Aug. 20), fails to mention the foreign origin of one name for bluejeans.
History tells us that Mr. and Mrs. Levi Strauss spent their summers in Provence, France — specifically at Nîmes, where the heavy blue fabric was made. Because the dye was famous and was found nowhere else, the French called it “bleu de Nîmes.” Strauss anglicized the name to “blue denim.” The rest is history.
The first wince was at the completely false assertion about the Levi Strausses inventing the word, which has been around since the 17th century (1695 E. HATTON Merchant’s Mag. 159, 18 Serge Denims that cost 6l. each). The rueful smile was an acknowledgment of the irrepressible human need to connect stories with famous people (mixed with gratitude that the basic etymological fact, that denim comes from the phrase de Nîmes, is correct). The second wince was at the thought that the Times, once again, didn’t bother to check up on an assertion about language.
By the way, another letter in the same section added a sad detail to the story of the death of the great science fiction writer known to the field as James Tiptree, Jr. (her “real” name was Alice B. Sheldon): “Sheldon revealed that she had struggled against suicidal urges since her childhood. The handwritten suicide note found beside her corpse in 1987 had been written years earlier; she had carefully saved it until she was ready to use it.”